Candidates skittled as political ‘dirt units’ enter overdrive in the social media era


This kind of skulduggery is as old as politics, but it has been given a boost from the internet and social media. A decade into the era of Facebook and Twitter, candidates are leaving ever-deeper online footprints, providing a rich trove of gaffes for the other side’s “dirt units”.

As Mr Creasey acknowledged in his resignation statement: “This is a really important lesson for young people that your social media footprint will follow you.”

Labor’s candidate for Melbourne, Luke Creasey, quit the race on Friday.Credit:AAP

As used to be the case with governments and intelligence agencies, political parties don’t formally acknowledge their black ops units, or “research teams” as they’re politely called.

“I don’t think either side knows where this ends,” one operator said. “It’s always a roll of the dice. You hope you take off more paint than they do.”

Another seasoned operator observed: “You have to assume everything is on the record. If you’re not prepared to stand by it for the rest of your life, don’t say it.”

But it is also likely that as social media footprints get longer and gaffes become all but ubiquitous, the threshold of sackability will rise, this person says – comparable to the growing acceptance of historical minor drug use.

“Everyone these days has smoked a spliff. You can get away with it. But you can’t get away with mainlining crystal meth.”

It’s no coincidence that an avalanche of candidates have fallen in recent days. Nominations for the May 18 election closed last week, meaning it’s too late for a party to replace a candidate who’s forced to quit.

But the best – or worst – may be yet to come. As the case of former NSW Labor leader Michael Daley showed last year, a strategic landmine late in a campaign – in his case video of his warning Asians were “taking local jobs” – can derail everything.

“Not all of the Victorian stuff was us,” one Labor figure said.

Given the Greens stood most to benefit from Mr Killin’s departure in that safe Labor seat, some insiders have speculated the Greens helped push the Killin story as well.

Parties have limited resources to vet candidates, meaning those who are unlikely to win their seats – Mr Hearn, Mr Killin and Mr Creasey were all in this basket – are checked less thoroughly. But as one insider observed, gaffes can be damaging beyond the candidate’s own seat.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison spent frustrating chunks of this week addressing his candidates’ remarks.

The digging of dirt is widely felt to have reached ridiculous proportions between the Greens and Labor in last year’s Victorian election. It had actual health effects on some staffers.

Former Greens candidate Joanna Nilson wrote movingly last last year about her experience of being outed for admittedly “foolish” social media posts she’d made.

“The shame was, and is, paralysing,” she wrote in The Guardian. “What I’ve come to realise is this: we’ve all said and done stupid things on the internet, especially if you’re under 40. That’s what normal people do.”

David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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