If you’re a digital professional on the left, especially one with some skin in the current Democratic presidential primary contest, you likely know Matt Bruenig. The liberal blogger was fired for getting into a name-calling spat on Twitter with Neera Tanden, a Hillary Clinton supporter and president of the Center for American Progress.
Vox, which describes Bruenig as “an aggressive left-wing Twitter personality”, has a tweet-by-tweet account of the war of words that led to his firing.
It’s another in a series of scuffles, both online and off, between Clinton and Sanders backers as tensions between the two camps boil over. Take the recent state party convention in Nevada, where Sanders supporters graffitied the headquarters, reportedly threw chairs and threatened state party Chairwoman Roberta Lange over social media. It’s representative of the vitriol being fired back and forth online between Clinton’s and her rival’s camps.
But leaving aside the implications for Democratic unity, does the Bruenig incident hold a lesson for young campaign staffers, especially in an age where rhetorical battles rage online daily?
Do they need to keep their opinions offline, even if they’re embroiled in a protracted intra-party fight, or do they just need to find a better way of engaging with online opponents?
Kouri Marshall, executive director of Democratic GAIN, warns that, broadly speaking, potential employers are scrutinizing more than ever what applicants are saying and have said online.
“They should be careful with how they talk about candidates they might not like,” said Marshall, whose group hosts career fairs and has a popular jobs board. “Especially when there’s two Democrats running, or two Republicans running because at the end of the day, if they want to join the team that wins the nomination at later date, they might mess up that opportunity because of their social media.”
Of course, the lure of the Twitter war is strong, and that’s nothing new. During the last midterm cycle, Republican consultant Mark Harris aimed a critique in C&E at young, social media-obsessed operatives and comms professionals.
“As operatives we have to remember that Twitter is not a representative sample,” Harris wrote. “One or two Twitter loudmouths can make minor issues seem tremendously important when they are, in fact, completely irrelevant. If Twitter is your only news source, which too often it is for many political reporters, some random malfeasance would appear to have seismic repercussions when survey research would show 80 percent of voters are unaware of the issue at all.”
It presents a potential dilemma for aspirants because campaigns are looking for digital skills — and what better way to showcase them than, say, building a large Twitter following.
“They’re looking for folks who are digitally savvy. They’re looking for folks who have great digital profiles,” said Marshall. Though most of the employers he interacts with running GAIN are putting just as much emphasis on “clean digital profiles.”
Even established consultants aren’t immune from losing out on work because of controversial opinions expressed online. In March 2015, GOP consultant Liz Mair was forced to resign from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's presidential campaign after her tweets about Iowans growing up “government-dependent” because of ethanol subsidies caused controversy.
“I tell my friends that all the time,” said Marshall, “don’t go so hard on people you don’t like.”