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The Internet Is For Political Messes

Or, why you should never tweet or email if you want to run the country

With all the promises that this would be an election revolutionized by Snapchat, Facebook Live, dating apps, and Meerkat, we’ve sure spent a lot of time discussing a technological relic that was around the last time there was a presidential nominee named Clinton. We’re talking, of course, about email — the topic that has haunted Hillary for the past year, and threatens to engulf the whole party this week.

To be fair, email is not the only internet tool that politicians have learned makes their job easier — fundraising at the click of a button! — and also makes it much easier for them to find ways to appear untrustworthy, like they’re trying too hard, or just ... dumb. Here’s a look back at some of the recent ways the internet has facilitated many political actors’ natural proclivity to do things that make people mad.

The DNC Leak

Let’s start with the act of doing wrong on the internet that has everyone upset this week. Last Friday, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails sent by staffers at the Democratic National Committee. They revealed, as was already made obvious from the DNC’s inability to hold a debate that wasn’t on a holiday weekend, that the DNC wasn’t feeling the Bern. They discussed trying to make religious voters in the South wonder if he was an atheist. DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz complained that Sanders, who has been an independent for the bulk of his career, “has no understanding of what we do.” There is talk of Bernie bros, and frustration that Bernie wouldn’t get out of the race. There’s other stuff in there too — revelations about how the party tries to entice donors, an email in which Wasserman Schultz asks if her staff can find seven — seven! — Hamilton tickets, and one email that just reads, “Eat my butt.”

You could probably find this type of grumbling and scheming if you peeked inside the files of most political organizations, but this particular leak happened right before the moment when everyone in the Democratic Party wanted to pretend to get along in order to provide a convenient contrast to the Republican convention.

Instead, they get to start the convention with Wasserman Schultz announcing her resignation, and the protesters outside even more convinced that the entire process was rigged against them. Democrats are looking about as unified as the Republicans right now. (Important context from the Washington Post: Pew Research polling shows that 90 percent of Sanders fans plan on supporting Clinton right now.) WikiLeaks plans to release more emails soon, and the FBI is now looking into the hack.

If this wasn’t enough, it looks like the Russians might be involved? The New York Times reports that “The WikiLeaks release, however, has more of a tinge of Russian-style information war, in which the intent of the revelations is to alter political events. Exactly how, though, is a bit of a mystery, apart from embarrassing Democrats and further alienating Mr. Sanders’s supporters from Mrs. Clinton.” Yahoo reports that it looks like the hack may have “extended beyond the official email accounts of committee officials to include their private email and potentially the content on their smartphones” and that there are “also signs that the hackers have penetrated the personal email of some Clinton campaign staffers.” Trump has financial ties to Russia, and has said repeatedly that he loves when Vladimir Putin says nice things about him.

But really, you’d think that the party would have learned to never say anything over email ever again.

The Hillary Emails

Which leads us to our other case of electronic mail gone awry this election cycle. During her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton decided to forego her official State Department email account and instead have her staffers use an unclassified private server housed at her home in Chappaqua, New York. The scandal over the email opened up questions about transparency, the safety of the information discussed on the server, and a million queries about the trustworthiness of a person that many Americans are preprogrammed to be wary of.

After the bulk of the emails were released to the public, it became clear that the trove was mostly limited to exceptionally boring questions from Clinton about how to make fax machines work, or how she could find out what channel Parks and Recreation was on. In one email, she tells a friend that they should “go drink something unhealthy!” — which is probably something she has wanted to email many times given how the election cycle is going, if she is allowed to touch email anymore. Several top secret emails were also sent on the server, which means that the aftermath of the very bad decision to set up this email server in the first place continued to unfold until July 5, when the FBI said it didn’t think the case deserved criminal charges. Reporting on the top secret emails sent on the server goes on.

FBI Director James Comey called the use of the email server “extremely careless.” Clinton told Charlie Rose last week that when it comes to voters and trust, the emails “didn't help. Yes, I am sure it didn’t help.”

Trump and Twitter

One of Donald Trump’s chief personality flaws, one that makes him formidable as a TV character and less endearing for someone auditioning to be a responsible government official, is that he cannot shut up. This trait proved an unfortunate gateway drug to Twitter, the patron saint of all who have nothing to say but are thirsty to share anyway.

One of Trump’s favorite things to talk about is himself: He ricochets back and forth between keeping a careful tally of all those who have said mean things about him, and refuting said haters with testimonials from those astute enough to glimpse his inner beauty.

This approach to self-love — which has sent him scurrying from cable news show to debate stage to rally to talk about his poll numbers — has not translated well to Twitter. Gawker tricked Trump into retweeting Benito Mussolini quotes by attributing them to the Republican nominee. He has retweeted white supremacists. He has come up with many unflattering nicknames for all who have wronged him. Trump gets massive attention for each of these moments, but each moment tends to fade quickly, as a single tweet always fails to captivate our attention for long. And so he tweets again, trying to capture us once more.

He has also exported his unfortunate Twitter habits to reality, live retweeting people who say awful things during his rallies to significantly increase their reach. Before the New Hampshire primary, a woman at a rally yelled something mean about Ted Cruz, which immediately made Trump break out in a grin. “She called him a pussy,” he said. “That’s terrible. Terrible.”

Or perhaps Trump has always been a Twitter feed made into a real boy, his retweets growing long every time he lies.

Trump and Everything on the Internet

On Monday, Trump announced that he will do a Reddit AMA during the Democratic convention. It will take place on July 27 at 7 p.m. The conversation will not happen on the r/IAmA subreddit, which is where big names usually go to talk on Reddit; it will instead take place on the r/The_Donald subreddit. This subreddit, according to MSNBC, has been “plagued by constant infighting among its leaders, infiltration by white supremacists and clashes with the site’s administrators over complaints that its users game the system to make their content more visible.” The New York Times adds, “Visitors to the group will find a cascade of offensive postings. Some members share open antipathy toward Muslims, sling insults with relish and mock anyone who takes umbrage.”

In other words, this will definitely go well and not be like taking all the worst parts of Trump's web presence and putting them in a Vitamix.

That Other DNC Problem You Forgot About

The last DNC data problem happened 10 years ago in 2016 campaign time. Back in December, a weird glitch in the DNC’s system let Bernie Sanders’s staffers access their opponent’s data on voters in early primary states. The DNC reacted by briefly locking the Sanders campaign out of the data, making it nearly impossible for them to do any campaign work. The Sanders campaign responded by suing the DNC. The lawsuit evaporated in April, and the Sanders team released a statement saying it hoped “the DNC make it a top priority to prevent future data security failures in the voter file system, failures that only serve as unnecessary distractions to the democratic process.”

The baby controversy helped start the complaints that the DNC had sided with Clinton — and proved some useful foreshadowing on the security front. If you build a precarious political presence on the internet, the problems will come.