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Politics How should we treat politicians who screw up on social media?

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC's The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

In the Internet Age, the half-life of our mistakes is forever. We can debate whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but that fact isn't going anywhere.

The ability to share views, stories, pictures, and thoughts instantly, with our friends and family is a fantastic thing. The ability for the rest of the world to find our angry or stupid thoughts, fashion mistakes, and bad hair days is not.

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In politics, the role of the Internet is a wild, constantly changing, blessing and curse. It's as though we've attached a drip of Red Bull to our political system, parties and candidates included. Everything races at an unprecedented and often unhealthy speed. Smart ideas work in no time at all. The odour of bad choices spreads even more quickly.

This week, a couple of federal candidates, one a young woman running for the Liberals in Calgary, the other a retired man running for the Conservatives in Quebec, dropped out of their respective races, because of thoughts they had previously posted online.

The people involved and the nature of their remarks that led to their retirement from this campaign were quite different, but watching both cases unfold left me with a few common impressions.

First off, we were reminded again that anybody thinking about running for office should harbour no illusions. If you've said or done anything online that you aren't proud of or at least ready to explain, putting your name on a ballot is probably not the best idea.

It's unpleasant, but fair game for your opponents to seek this stuff out. And it's almost certain that if there's any chance you'll win, someone will be looking.

The fact that stories such as this surface in the first place isn't the problem, in my view. But we have had a hard time knowing how to react. Instant anger and hostility has often trumped any there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I reflection. (I'm not speaking here of the specific comments of these two candidates, but the phenomena in general.)

But maybe, just maybe, we're getting better at dealing with these situations.

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Both these candidates quickly figured out, with or without help, that their races were over – that carrying on was not an option. This was the right decision. That it was taken quickly was good for them, and the right thing for voters who might want to support those parties, but wouldn't be able to get past the comments. In some types of businesses "failing fast" is considered a virtue, and that should be the case in politics, too.

What was more interesting is that we seemed willing to skip the chapter where we heap scorn on these people. Perhaps it was only because of the Duffy trial diversion, but I can't help but wonder if we're slowly teaching ourselves to react more slowly, and with more measure.

In the case of Liberal candidate Ala Buzreba, we had a chance to test how we feel about a that-was-years-ago-when-I-was-young explanation. It is to her credit that Ms. Buzreba said she didn't feel this was an excuse for saying the things she said, which she apologized for without reservation.

But the fact that several of her distasteful tweets were made when she was in her teens gave some people pause. Maybe that's because we see more and more clearly that where we set the bar for other people should have some bearing on how we would judge ourselves.

I don't know about you, but I'm glad there was no Internet to keep track of what I was saying when I was 17. I get into enough trouble with what I say at 58.

The Conservative candidate in question, Gilles Guibord, is a former electrician, Péquiste, and Bloquiste. Just last year, he commented on a newspaper's website about the nature of the relationships between men and women, ideas that he's obviously entitled to hold and express, but, to put it gently, are a poor fit within a big tent political party, at least in this or the last century.

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In both cases, if we narrow our gaze and look only at the words that could shock us, and ignore any context, we can get pretty repulsed.

If we step back a bit, and note that both candidates were, at least in some cases, responding to other comments, we might pause a bit in our haste to shame them. Anyone familiar with Facebook or Twitter, or even good old-fashioned e-mail knows that it's possible to get caught up in a moment, say things too quickly, without thinking, based on emotion alone.

To some, this might sound like I'm half endorsing the comments of these two candidates, but that's not the case at all.

I'm simply wondering if our collective reactions aren't maturing, in a positive way. In the end, a couple of poorly chosen candidates are gone from the race. And if that was accomplished without too much vitriol, hyperbole, and piling on, maybe we are on our way to finding a new, more sustainable way of managing public life in the Internet era.

Which would be an okay thing. Because what happens in Vegas might well stay in Vegas. But what happens on the Internet stays available for scrutiny, forever.

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