Anthony Weiner apparently missed the memo: if you’re a public figure, your personal activity on the Internet is now a matter of public record. New York Representative Chris Lee of the 26th District resigned his seat over similar discoveries of lascivious abuses of Internet media. That left a political opening for Democrats to challenge and eventually win in the historically Republican district. There must be something in the New York water supply…
The Internet has brought about all manner of changes to the way humans interact. Many of them have been groundbreaking such as the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ rising attributed to the unprecedented sharing of information due to social media. No longer does one have to feel like an oppressed voice in the wilderness; you can hook up with the other voices and have a flash mob in Tahrir Square in no time. Instant caucus. So long Hosni Mubarek.
In American politics the Internet has also begun to play a major role in campaigning. Historians will no doubt acknowledge its pivotal role in President Obama’s election and fund raising. But there are several disturbing things about Congressman Weiner’s very public sex scandal: the media reaction, the invasion of privacy and how we use media, and political manipulation. Let’s go down the list.
Sex scandal has been around since people could have sex. In looking at political sex scandals of the past couple of decades one glaring statistic stands out: almost all of them have been perpetuated by men. Granted, there were women (or men) involved but the person in power was generally the one instigating or transferring power. We could make an argument here over the ratio of men in power versus that of women in power but that’s an argument for another day. Am I saying it’s all men’s fault? Not necessarily, but it’s hard to ignore the disparity. It’s also easy to draw the conclusion that in some Darwinian fashion men feel powerful in attracting multiple women and likewise women are attracted to powerful men. Passing on your genes with the alpha male is just survival of the fittest.
To clarify: what Congressman Weiner did on Twitter is disturbing but not unheard of. It amounts to surfing porn on the Internet. He texted lewd photos of himself to followers on Twitter that were meant for a particular individual. What he apparently did not mean to do is broadcast this over the entire Tweetscape. But once you hit send, it’s out there for all posterity and, once in the public domain, people such as Andrew Breitbart are free to exploit it for their own purposes.
Many people have texted inappropriate things on the Internet believing there was an unspoken guarantee of privacy and it’s surprising that there hasn’t been a copyright challenge. Copyright generally protects photos, videos, journals, or other creative expressions from being copied without the consent of the original owner. The argument would be that once you tweet a photo to someone else, it becomes their property to do with as they see fit. I should note that some challenges have been brought forth concerning sex tapes and some people actually achieve notoriety from ‘leaking’ sex tapes to Internet. The increasing popularity of making a sex tape with someone with whom there is a an understood degree of privacy does not guarantee that one or the other party(ies) will always be agreeable to keeping it private; particularly in light of hard feelings and offers of monetary compensation.
The news organizations, of course, jumped all over the story with unbridled glee. As one news commentator noted last night it was the first time in a week that his show was not leading off with a story about Anthony Weiner. Indeed, all of the airtime in the past couple of weeks has been consumed with nothing but Weiner’s exploits despite the fact that there were other newsworthy items happening around the globe. It is striking how tabloidish the major media outlets have become. We noted a similar circumstance a few months back when Sarah Palin was sucking all of the air out of the room. It’s becoming unclear as to which is more disappointing: Weiner’s exploits or the media’s constant bombardment of every illicit photo, tweet and e-mail. We get it. He was naughty. Can we talk about something else now?
The larger and mostly ignored issue is how politics is being affected by new technologies. Internet blogger Andrew Breitbart is notorious for manipulating the media to affect pre-meditated political outcomes. Yet in order to be competitive politicians must necessarily use these new forms of technology to reach their ever increasing tech-saavy constituents. But now anything you tweet can and will be used against you.
So this is the new dirty politics? Is it okay to use hacked e-mails to fabricate an anti-climate change controversy? Personal data is fair game for attacking a political opponent? Dressing like a pimp and a prostitute and infiltrating an organization with hidden video cameras and selectively editing the video to create an unfavourable impression of the organization in order to dismantle it is acceptable? Impersonating a wealthy political benefactor on the phone in order to get a politician to display their true motivations is okay?
All of these methods of media manipulation seem particularly unethical even if the outcome is desired or beneficial. The one casualty of new technology seems to be individual privacy. Even sadder was that Weiner’s normally private wife had the fact of her pregnancy revealed against her wishes even though it had no relevance to the scandal.
Anthony Weiner’s behaviour was reprehensible and he will likely suffer political consequences as a result. But it’s disingenuous to call for his resignation without having a conversation about David Vitter, who was actually guilty of sleeping with prostitutes, or John Ensign, who only resigned when it became apparent that he was about to be expelled from congress, or a host of other sex scandals where people remained in office. Weiner is being asked by Republicans and even a few Democrats to step down from his office for having been essentially surfing porn or as Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post put it, he’s being asked to sacrifice a great deal for having gotten so little.
We should also consider Breitbart’s motives in this. There is nothing altruistic behind his distributing these photos and outing the women who were engaging in twitter exchanges with Weiner. Breitbart’s only interest is to remove Wiener from office.
Finally, if congressional leaders haven’t done so yet, they should probably consider drafting new technology policy for incoming members in order to avoid situations such as these in the future.
(Ed. note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Rep Chris Lee (R-NY) as Rep Mike Lee of Utah. We regret any mix-up)
- Why Push Weiner Out But Not Vitter? (politicalwire.com)
- Surviving sex scandals (politico.com)
- Who Survived a Political Sex Scandal? (thedailybeast.com)
- Anthony Weiner Photo Scandal Survivable, Political History Shows (huffingtonpost.com)
- Democrats Push Weiner to Resign (online.wsj.com)
- The Biggest Crime in the Anthony Weiner Scandal (Huffington Post)
- To Cover or Not to Cover (Politico)