The unignorable power of Twitter – even if you are ‘only 17’

parisIt broke over the weekend that Paris Brown, newly appointed as the UK’s first youth Police and Crime Commissioner, had earlier in her teens tweeted posts that “could be considered racist and anti-gay”. She has today decided to stand down (after sustained calls for both her and her manager, Kent PCC Ann Barnes,  to do so), ‘in the interests of the young people of Kent’.

Reading the story on Sunday, my very first though was – how on earth did the people employing her miss that? How did they not check?

I know that my job and the industry I’m in is uber social media aware, more so than a lot of others. But this is 2013 – Twitter isn’t exactly a new beast by this stage, and there have been several very well documented cases of people’s careers being heavily and irrevocably damaged thanks to things they’ve said on the platform. While checking a potential candidate’s social media feeds isn’t quite standard procedure, it’s certainly expected – or, at least, people are aware it could happen. Why else would new graduates be advised to keep their Twitter and Facebook pages employer-friendly, or make them private?

I was particularly surprised because of the type of role it was – not just because she would be working for the police, but because the whole point of the position was to interact with teenagers, to reach out to them. What do teenagers use these days? Twitter. Whenever we’re recruiting I make a point of checking to see whether potential interviewees are on Twitter – not to sniff out anything dodgy they might have said, but to make sure they’re au fait with what is a communication tool of ever-increasing importance. Social media use is a key skill to my industry – it could be said to be too for a youth PCC, to reach out and engage her target audience.

Some of these tweets are nearly 3 years old, and many have commented saying you just can’t judge people on things that they did as teenagers. Ann Barnes said earlier today, “I’m sure many people today would not have the jobs they are in if their
thoughts in their teenage years were scrutinised.” And we all know what it’s like to “show off” when you’re that age, as Paris has said she did, though I don’t necessarily agree with her statement that she was acting ‘like a normal teenager’. That feels a bit like being tarred with a certain brush – something Kent’s “normal teenagers” reacted quite strongly against. I know it sounds prudish, but I was certainly never like that.

But I can only feel sorry for her to an extent. Yes, we all did show off as teens. But not on Twitter. It’s not the same nowadays. It’s not showing off in the classroom, or at a party, or like scribbling in a teenage diary. God knows mine are filled with some cracking examples of teenage showing off. Twitter is not the same: it’s like a paper trail – it’s public, it can’t be fully controlled by you and it makes you accountable. Particularly when it comes to things like jobs.

People are saying ‘she was only 14, she’s only 17 now’, but by applying for an adult position, in an adult and public-facing role, she was stepping out of the protection of the ‘I’m just a kid’ excuse. Yes, it was a youth-focused role, but it’s still taking on a mantle of responsibility and maturity. If, say, a twenty-seven year old had come into the role and was confronted with tweets they had made a few years previously, they would be treated no differently to the reaction against Paris. It seems blunt, but if she wanted to be treated like an adult – well, this is how an adult would have been treated, too.

I think the role of a youth PCC is a brilliant idea, and can see the sense in having a young person be the one to do it. But seeing the images of Paris, tearful, apologetic, shielding her face with her scarf and being escorted away – by an adult – just made me think, she really was not ready.

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Another aside, while we’re on the subject of Twitter. Margaret Thatcher. Since her death was announced yesterday lunchtime there have been some truly shameful posts spotted online. Yes, she was controversial, but there is no need for things like this. Disgusting.

It’s a real shame when political beliefs cause people to forget that at the end of the day, we are all human. If you didn’t like her, fine. But show some respect.

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