Rick Santorum finished a surprise 2nd place in the Iowa Caucus yesterday after gaining a ton of ground in the past two weeks with a huge grassroots campaign that took him to every county in Iowa. Santorum finished a surprising 8 votes short of front runner and establishment candidate Mitt Romney and did it with lots of handshakes, personal events and groundwork, all the while spending almost no money. He spent $20 per vote, compared to $480 for Rick Perry and $155 for Romney. He also did it by eschewing the Internet, twitter and other new media.
Now, as the American electorate is being introduced to Santorum, their first reaction will be to run over to Google and type in “Santorum” or “Rick Santorum.” Many will not like what they find, but not just for political reasons. If they Google “Santorum,” the first 2 results and 6 of the 10 results on the first page will refer to the aftermath of a specific sexual activity (full definition of Santorum here, I warn you, its really gross). If you Google “Rick Santorum” #3 refers to the same activity.
Santorum got its alternative meaning in 2003 after he made anti-gay comments, including comparing being gay to bestiality. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage proposed renaming a sex act with Santorum’s last name to forever stain his name with his antigay comments. I remember reading the original columns in The Onion and thinking it was pretty funny, but never thought that the campaign would actually catch on like it has. Savage set up a website and it quickly went viral. I cannot hear his name without thinking of the other meaning and now Google is introducing millions more to the alternative meaning. Savage offered to take down any references to the other meaning if Santorum stopped his anti gay rhetoric and then donated $5m to marriage equality causes, but Santorum turned him down.
So what does this mean for Santorum the candidate? And what does his story mean for the rest of us? I think Santorum’s original comments in 2003 ruled him out from winning a Presidential election, so in the grand scheme of things, it won’t really change his chances of winning. But it does make him answer uncomfortable questions. And I think it’s the start of a trend.
Google and other social media have become such powerful tools, especially for people with influence. It shows that if you piss off the wrong people on the Internet, you too can be synonymous with something equally disgusting. Before, people were accountable for only what people could remember, or what they could find in librarian’s archives. Now, anyone with a voice can share their opinion. And their opinion is there forever. Google and the Internet never forgets.
What happens when my generation decides to start to run for office? We’ve had Facebook, Twitter, blogs and personal websites since our teens. It’s going to be really easy for people digging up dirt to find photos of us wasted or doing stupid things (more likely both at the same time.) What about old status updates and non-mainstream political ideas? Bad jokes we made to friends that can be taken out of context? We’ve all got it and if you don’t you’re either incredibly private or really boring! People will either disqualify presidential candidate with these “problems” or they will realize taht everyone has similar posts and decide that it’s just part of life. I sure hope it’s the former or we’ll have some really boring people in office!
The other issue that’ll affect all of us, not just politicians, is that the Internet never forgets. Before the internet, we could reinvent ourselves, change our opinions, do dumb things when we were young and nobody besides the people involved would know your past. We could start fresh. It’s part of what made us human. Now our past is all out in the open for anyone to find. From blogs to twitter to tumblr and now the Facebook Timeline, anyone with enough time or curiosity can find exactly what I thought in 2005 via my Facebook Timeline, my political views in 2007 via my blog and dumb things I tweeted to my friends in 2009.
In the past, we could change our opinions when presented with new facts. In fact, that’s the most admirable trait that I think someone can have. Now, if you change your opinion, you’re branded a “flip-flopper” or you “don’t have strong convictions.” I think that’s bullshit.
Eliminating the ability to change and reinvent ourselves is going to be a really big change for humans. There’s no way to put a wild past, a flirtation with a non-mainstream ideology or simple youthful exuberance behind you. There’s always a record. I’m not suggesting that it’s good that people can lie about their past, but I don’t think its healthy to be able to get as specific as the internet allows you to. And Santorum is one of the first public figures to experience our new reality.