For politicians, Twitter poses a unique problem

There may be no maxim that millennials are more familiar with than this: “The internet is forever.” In an age of screenshots and retweets, internet ephemera is almost instantly transformed into something more permanent that can be shared weeks, months and even years after the original posting. For most of us, this translates to concern over employers finding old Facebook statuses. These stakes are amplified for celebrities. Last week ,after actress Lena Dunham faced accusations of racism over her statements about Odell Beckham Jr.’s behavior toward her at the Met Gala, Twitter users unearthed one of Dunham’s tweets from 2011 in which Dunham makes a racist comment about Asian men. Despite its age, the racist, resurfaced tweet was shared across a variety of tabloids. But embarrassing, problematic or offensive social media posts are not exclusively a problem for college students or celebrities. In fact, the haunting nature of tweets — their ability to resurface at a moment’s notice, their imperviousness to deletion — can cause quite a headache for politicians in their potential to completely re-define the term flip-flop.

Flip-flopping is inevitable. All politicians have “evolved” on an issue at one point or another. And yet, accusing one’s opponent of being a flip-flopper can still cause irreparable damage. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney struggled to escape the media’s narrative of him as a flip-flopper. In this election, many seem unwilling to welcome Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s reversal on issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or even marriage equality. Flip-flopping produces legitimate concerns about authenticity, pandering and truthfulness; however, it also produces room for debate. For example, should we forgive legislators for votes they cast that, only in hindsight, were revealed as clearly not in the best interest of the country? Should we fault politicians for changing their positions as the tide of public opinion shifts?

But this election, perhaps for the first time, produces a new question: How and when should candidates be held accountable for what they tweet? Is retracting a tweet the same as a flip flop? Of course, Clinton’s Twitter account making a tone-deaf tweet about student debt and emojis is clearly in a different category than her vote for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. However, candidates must be held accountable for their positions, whether made known on the floor of Congress or on their Twitter timeline.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump may as well be running as @realDonaldTrump. His Twitter account has been and continues to be a central part of his 2016 bid for presidency. It has helped forge his reputation as someone who speaks his mind; it has also been one of the main sources of Trump’s racist, xenophobic, anti-semitic and sexist attacks. Regardless of the medium, bigotry should be taken seriously and condemned by the American public. However, the gray area is whether Trump’s tweets should be treated like policy proposals.

In a recent interview with Trump, Matt Lauer asked him about a tweet he made more than three years ago: “26,000 unreported sexual assults (sic) in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?” Even putting aside the typo, this tweet doesn’t look like it belongs in the same category as a policy proposal. Trump is not even explicitly suggesting that women be disallowed from serving in the military. In fact, Trump clarified in his interview with Lauer, perhaps to avoid looking like a flip-flopper, that he is not suggesting that women are unfit for military service. However, if we want to continue holding politicians accountable for what they’ve said in interviews and how they have voted on previous legislation, then it would be irresponsible to simply ignore Trump’s tweet.

Trump’s tweet is misogynistic and rests on misconceptions perpetuated by rape culture. He places the blame of sexual assault on women serving in the military, rather than on a culture which ignores survivors of sexual assault and protects the perpetrators. He dangerously gives credit to the myth that men simply can’t help themselves and that if a woman is raped then it was probably because she was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be.

In certain situations, picking one tweet out of more than 30,000 would be unfair. Evolution on an issue is natural. Admitting one’s mistakes and genuinely making amends should be lauded, not always dismissed as political maneuvering. However, when a presidential candidate tweets an opinion about a serious political issue, regardless of how spontaneous or offhand the comment may seem, it should be treated like any other public statement. In 2016, the American public must wrestle with our candidate’s tweets just as seriously as we would with their voting records.

Lena Melillo  is a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law and gender studies.  Her column, “’Pop Politics,” runs every  Thursday.