Nowhere To Hide From Oppo Research and the Vetters

It became obvious well over a decade ago that search engines made plagiarism extremely perilous. But it wasn’t until the last camapaign cycle when BuzzFeed undertook a systematic search of candidate speeches, books, web pages, and other material, that even fairly innocent poaching of content was going to be found out and exploited by enemies.

Similarly, we’ve already seen some examples this cycle of social media indiscretions by proto-presidential candidates’ staffs being blown up into a “scandal”–most notably the furor over Scott Walker’s employment of, and then dismissal of, a contract employee who had annoyed cultural conservatives and dissed Iowa.

But now we are realizing this has just become part of the standard political game, per this post from a media trainer:

Now, there’s even more reason to be cautious of what you say online. Last week, Politico Playbook mentioned a new opposition research firm called Shield Political Research. Its selling point? They analyze political staffers’ online media presence. From the company’s website:

“Many of the men and women who will staff and lead campaigns this cycle are from a generation in which virtually their entire adult lives —for better or worse —are reflected on social media accounts.

“Shield will examine these social media accounts—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, among other sites—and flag any potential sources of trouble, including questionable photos, comments, tweets, ‘likes’ or followed feeds.

” Our methods go beyond simple searching, using triangulation, archived pages and social-web analysis to guarantee we capture a full picture of the staffer’s social media footprint.”

This company obviously sells its services to both sides: campaigns wanting dirt on campaigns, and campaigns wanting to avoid hiring–or at least wanting advance notice of–people who have done embarrassing things online.

Presumably such searches can be expanded into all sorts of directions, aimed at a campaign’s donors, endorsers, and surrogates, and ultimately, everybody’s family and significant others, if the indiscretions are lurid enough.

To the extent that behaving badly on social media has become an extremely common rite of passage for American millennials, I don’t know whether the examples will dry up before people lose interest in them. But until we find out, it’s going to be a tense period for all sorts of people in the public eye, and scrutiny of social media will move further and further up the vetting chain to afflict poor schmoes who have barely sat down for an interview. Explaining those six months between jobs on the resume could become a third-order worry for the hungry young political animal, and that’s sad.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.