The online public shaming of political candidates in the 2019 general election

Prof Mark Wheeler

Professor of Political Communications at London Metropolitan University and author of several books including Celebrity Politics: Image and Identity in Contemporary Political Communications (2013) and Public Spheres and Mediated Social Networks in the Western Context and Beyond (2016, with Petros Iosifidis). He is currently researching and writing a monograph on William Friedkin’s film Sorcerer(1977).


Section 1: Truth, Lies and Civic Culture

Throughout the 2019 General Election the online public shaming of candidates became a regular event. There were common stories of aspiring politicians who had unwisely taken to Twitter or other social media feeds becoming unstuck as their misjudged comments from the digital past came back to haunt them. Candidates’ online contributions ranged from sex texting to inflammatory statements about minorities in terms of their gender, race and religious creed. Most specifically, Conservatives were accused of being spitefully anti-Islamic, while Labour rivals were besmirched as being virulently anti-semitic.

The online shaming of public and private individuals appears to be one of the unforeseen consequences of the increased centrality of the social media in our everyday lives. In 2015, the journalist Jon Ronson wrote So You Have Been Publicly Shamed which identified the escalation of shaming both in terms of its instigators and its victims. As he noted, unfortunate statements have become blurred with more provocative and outright vicious commentary within the digital commons. This suggests that what was once perceived as an electronic agora has demonstrated an innate duality wherein:

“(On the one hand it is) powerful and important (in establishing) a new civil rights battlefield. (On the other hand it has created) … a nasty imitation. … The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. We are now turning it into a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless”.

Therefore, as social media has moved from the periphery to the centre of political campaigning, it is hardly surprising that the processes of online shaming have been replicated in the realm of modern day politics. Along with the weaponisation of information on Twitter and Facebook, the bully pulpit of the information superhighway has become the new campaign battlefront. Thus, practitioners of the ‘dark arts’ such as Boris Johnson’s Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings can engage in an online version what was described by the disgraced President Richard M. Nixon’s operatives as ‘rat fucking’.

In the case of all of the political parties, a series of online rebukes were issued to catch out candidates for their previous indiscretions. Invariably, their social media pasts were subjected to ‘Tweet dredging’ – wherein teams of party workers go through their opponents social media history looking for incriminating posts. Therefore, respective Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Brexit Party members were unceremoniously withdrawn even before their campaigns had begun.While some indicated their stupidity in a throwaway remark or tweet, there were examples of the genuinely untoward and outright nasty forms of political intolerance.

However, it is interesting to note that as Johnson engaged in a campaign rampant with partial truths, misinformation and outright falsehoods, how little he was subjected to forms of online or conventional media shaming. Moreover, despite his avowed claims of a zero-tolerance of Islamophobia, The Guardian showed that he and several leading Conservatives actively backed anti-Islamic candidates who had posted racist comments on a variety of Twitter accounts. Here, “Incidents include one candidate who argued that Muslims have divided loyalties, as well as blaming immigrants for bringing HIV to Britain, and another who retweeted posts from former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson.”

Conversely, the media happily engaged in the online hybridisation of untruthful memes which circulated in cyber-space about Jeremy Corbyn. This was of little surprise to those who have studied the extensive bias of the UK press and broadcasting which has existed in light of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Consequently, Johnson was allowed to engage in the casual proliferation of offensive racial epithets and populist policy contradictions. He was indulged in spite of being caught out on camera by a journalist showing him a picture on his mobile phone of a sick child lying on the floor of Leeds Infirmary. Moreover, he received little criticism for his exploitation of the deaths of the victims of the London Bridge terrorist tragedy or hiding from a GMTV journalist in an industrial fridge. As Peter Oborne commented, the BBC was at fault in its uncritical dissemination of his many lies. Yet, this eventuality may be seen to be less surprising when the oldest propagandist adage of them all – “the bigger the lie; the more people believe it” – is applied to the realm of the digital public sphere.