I remember growing up in Old Trafford, Manchester, seeing the poverty and the overpolicing in the community around me, and trying to make sense of the world. Without any meaningful political education at school, many – including myself – turned to the internet as a source of information during our formative years. Here many of us were confronted with seductively simplistic – yet in hindsight, deeply problematic – “explanations”, which at the time seemed coherent and appeared to knit together our experiences.
Looking back, I can laugh at how stupid and misguided many of those opinions were, whether it was thinking that secret societies ran the world, or that perhaps communities like my own were predisposed to crime or tax-dodging. It was only later in life that I would become more politically aware and be provided with the tools to understand and articulate the issues of an unjust economic system, institutional racism and so on.
It is concerning that attacks are often levelled at young, working-class, black and brown and/or Muslim people
That’s why I am concerned by the growth of a sinister trend: that of the press publishing screenshots of old social media statuses and tweets from young people running for political office. Screenshot leaks don’t exclusively affect young people, but I have seen many that date back to the teenage years of those running for student union roles and parliamentary positions.
We have a promising generation of emerging young activists engaged in current movements such as tackling the climate crisis and the fight for a fairer, safer and more humane immigration system. The difference between this generation and their politically minded predecessors is that today’s young people grew up with social media. Young people today will not be the first to learn and grow from their mistakes, but they are the first to have these mistakes laid out on the internet – easily accessible, easily taken out of context and easily weaponised for years to come.
In some cases, social media posts are twisted entirely out of context, an example being a flippant comment by the now National Union of Students president Zamzam Ibrahim, then a secondary school student, on why “boys and girls can’t be friends”. The tweet, from when she was 16, was framed by the press as an endorsement of gender segregation and used to paint her as a “fanatical Muslim”. Cases such as this make headlines with increasing regularity, with activists and budding politicians lambasted for posts that are misunderstood, exhibit youthful flippancy or lack of education, or, in the worst cases, may have been drafted in the heat of anger.
What is notable is that these posts are often from social media accounts that have been deleted or deactivated for years. The old tweets and statuses are resurrected and deployed precisely at the point that someone runs for an election, suggesting that screenshots are being quietly held on file over the years and strategically released for maximum impact. The examples here are legion, but we saw this most recently when posts from a prospective parliamentary candidate, Zarah Sultana, captured in 2015 from an account deleted more than a year ago – were made available to journalists. The mainstream press reported on the posts within 24 hours of her selection.
It is clear that many of these releases are fuelled by hatred rather than a sense of social justice. Instead of holding the powerful to account, it feels as if they have morphed into a cynical, cyclical exercise in bad faith, a tactic of trial by media. It is punitive, reiterating the logic of punishment and disposability (rather than growth and reform), often among individuals from marginalised sectors of society.
It would be reductive to ignore the fact that the tactic plays out in a political dimension, often directed towards leftwing activists – particularly those who have criticised the historical decisions of the Labour party, Israel or the government’s racist counter-extremism programme, Prevent. It is all the more concerning that such attacks are often levelled at young, working-class, black and brown and/or Muslim people. In recent years, we’ve finally seen that the increased democratisation of the Labour party has opened the door for young, working-class black and brown people to consider running for political office. But yet it is these very people who find themselves most likely to be deterred from engaging in politics, or exiled from it altogether, by the use of targeted screenshotting.
The message is clear: that politics should remain the preserve of the polished careerists of old. This means those who have been groomed and prepped for politics from youth, with the wherewithal to refine their every word; or those who have the political machinery behind them to cover their tracks if they don’t. Indeed Boris Johnson’s racist “gaffes” never got in the way of his political career, despite the fact that these comments span his adult years, and can be found in published newspaper columns rather than in a simple, misfired tweet.
We all make mistakes, but I fear that marginalised young people are not being afforded fair opportunities for growth. Political education occurs in the gaps between those flippant, even objectively wrong, teenage statuses that punctuate our timelines. Rather than paranoid, frenzied attempts to uncover the worst in our young people, we should be investing in programmes of political education and systems of genuine development to ensure we build a generation better prepared to articulate the issues in the world around them, in the hope they can also find the solutions. Each time the media and established political class make a conscious decision to attack a young activist for screenshots from the past, they are only excluding him or her from opportunities for political engagement.
• Ilyas Nagdee is the former NUS black students’ officer and now works on race equality in education