By Julian Hattem - 02/15/15 10:30 AM EST
How can political aides be so stupid?
In an increasingly digital world, staffers continue to post embarrassing and offensive things on their social media accounts. For a few hours the comments get spun around through the news cycle and, in the end, the aides predictably lose their jobs.
The week before, a senior advisor to Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) stepped down over Facebook posts that compared African-American people to “zoo animals.”
Shouldn't they have known better?
Despite the seemingly common knowledge not to over-share on the Internet, a mix of oversized egos on Capitol Hill and the Web’s powers of preservation consistently conspire to doom political careers over a couple of poorly planned tweets.
“The place doesn't lack for narcissism,” one former Senate aide told The Hill, and social media “plays to the worst sort of instincts in politicos.”
Like other staffers, the ex-aide was granted anonymity in order to speak freely about their experiences.
Politics is necessarily an ego-driven industry. In a town where every job is only as secure as the next election cycle, people with a tendency to self-promote and make themselves popular can often have an easier time staying employed.
Sometimes, that drive is bigger than the job.
“There are a lot of egos on the Hill,” one House Democratic aide said, “and people might feel like they need attention rather than just drawing attention to their boss.”
“There's a risk versus reward,” added the ex-Senate aide. The same tweet that could get someone in trouble may also make them a “’fun’ political brand in town.”
In some cases, cultivating an online following of reporters and policy experts can be an explicit part of someone’s job, as a way to get the lawmaker’s message out. But that turns into a problem when the same account becomes a venue for both work messaging and the steam they blow off after-hours.
It’s not unique to social media. But the same off-color joke that would normally disappear at the end of happy hour takes on a new life when it is etched forever on the data servers of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
One Senate staffer remembered that before the rise of social media, aides would remind each other: “Hey if you’re going out to the Hawk and Dove or something, just remember that you never know if the guy sitting next to you is a reporter,” referring to a popular bar steps from the Capitol.
“If people weren’t saying dumb things on social media, they’d find other mediums to say and do dumb things,” the staffer said.
Political aides are hardly unique for their poor judgment.
Just this week, a Pennsylvania teenager was arrested for murder after taking a selfie with their alleged murder victim.
The New York Times Magazine devoted 4,500 words to the story of a communications professional whose life was “ruined” when she tweeted in 2013: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Like that 2013 incident, the outrage about political aides’ missteps often seem all the more justified because of the public consensus that they should have known better.
“We live in a political environment, so I think we’re especially scrutinized and the onus is on us even more so to ensure that we’re not misrepresenting our employer,” said another Capitol Hill aide.
It’s not like they don’t try.
Many congressional offices make clear in one form or another that aides need to watch what they post online. Some have employee handbooks that give out general ground rules for what people should and shouldn’t do with their personal accounts, and others make it clear that anything they post on their own accounts could reflect on their boss.
“We use the rule ‘would you be comfortable with the boss seeing your tweet or post?’” the House Democratic aide said. “If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t do it.”
Even interns get the memo, they added.
And every new scandal only reaffirms the need for them to clean up their act.
But while some might be getting the message, it only takes one misstep to cause a furor. With thousands of staffers on Capitol Hill and aides around the country gearing up for the 2016 elections, it’s clear that the trend won’t end.
Before the latest flaps it was Rep. Stephen FincherStephen FincherRep. Fincher to retire Export-Import Bank takes step toward renewal Transportation deal includes Ex-Im renewal MORE’s (R-Tenn.) communications director who told President Obama’s daughters to “try showing a little class” during the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey last year.
In 2013, a spokesman to Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) was fired for tweeting “Me likey Broke Girls” after a racy ad for the CBS sitcom “2 Broke Girls” during the Super Bowl.
In 2011, Rep. Rick LarsenRick LarsenBusiness groups, lawmakers back trade case against China Dems urge treaty ratification after South China Sea ruling House panel kills LGBT effort on defense bill MORE (D-Wash.) fired three staffers for tweeting about drinking on the job and trying to avoid their “idiot boss.”
“We’re all sort of struggling and navigating this world for the first time,” said Scott Talan, a communications professor at American University who focuses on social media and personal branding.
“In another decade or two we’ll have a much better sense of what is to be done with the Web, how to interact [and] etiquette on the Web,” he added. “We’re not yet there.”