Vancouver council candidate Brandon Yan deleted his old tweets—in 2018, he would have been stupid not to
While it's fair for the public to want to trust their politicians, when it comes to social-media hot takes, to what extent can politicians trust the public?
An embarrassing old message posted on Twitter or Facebook can torpedo a politician's entire career.
It doesn't matter if there's any actual wrongdoing suggested with the post.
Just ask Ray Lam. In 2009, Lam was a rookie candidate who hoped to become the NDP MLA for Vancouver-False Creek. Then media outlets found photographs of him on Facebook wherein Lam was partying with friends and posing in a manner that was mildly sexually provocative.
Facebook had only opened membership to the public a couple of years earlier. And so the experience made Lam one of Canada's first politicians to get taken down by old posts on social media. Many, many others would follow.
Lam might have had a bright political future ahead of him and perhaps B.C. would have benefited from his participation in public affairs. We'll never know. Lam announced he was throwing in the towel hours after the first journalist's report on the photographs was published. The 20-something apologized to then-NDP leader Carol James for having done the sort of things that 20-somethings do. He hasn't tried his hand at politics since.
So when Brandon Yan entered the 2018 race to become a Vancouver city councillor, he did what most career coaches would describe as a sensible move [edit: "sensible" should read "required", a couple of employment consultants have emailed to tell me]. He did a bulk delete of old messages posted on Twitter.
Yan's field being Vancouver politics, it wasn't long before a small mountain of snarky criticism was coming his way.
"I was curious about @CitizenYan, wanted to read his twitter history," a Twitter user from Delta identifying themself as QuanLee wrote on July 22. "But he deleted everything before July 15, 2018 to when he joined in 2010 [shrug emoji] Aspiring politicians should be transparent, accountable and genuine, stand behind their words."
Later the same day, a communications specialist named Esther Yuen chimed in with a similar take.
"I find this rather troubling for someone who may very well be one of Vancouver's next city councillors," she wrote that evening. "What was @CitizenYan trying to hide? Why did he delete his tweets? #vanpoli"
Those two tweets were more than enough to spark the usual pile-on that the internet's outrage factory is so good at fuelling.
Yan, a council candidate with OneCity, education director at Out in Schools, and a former member of Vancouver's planning commission, could no longer be trusted. Who knows what sort of social crimes he buried with that bulk delete? What we now know for sure, is exactly what hitting the delete button says about how Yan would act if elected to council.
"How can people trust you, @CitizenYan, to bring transparency to decisions making at #Vancouver city hall, when you started by hiding all your Twitter history?" reads a tweet by Raza Mirza, a Vancouver resident active with the advocacy group Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT).
Supporters and critics of Yan's can debate the appropriateness of the exact timeframe that Yan applied with his bulk delete. I strongly would have preferred if he had left up tweets written during the last year or so at least. But I suspect a lot of people from across political divides can understand why someone seeking public office who's still only in their twenties or early thirties would worry about tweets written more than five years ago.
Why did Yan delete every message he posted on Twitter before July 15, 2018?
He's answered that question (on Twitter, of course):
"Mostly drunk tweets into the ether from when I was 22 (my alcohol tolerance is much lower now), some challenging mental health days, pictures of dogs, thoughts about cute boys on #Transit, probably some angry rants about things," he wrote the morning of July 23. "If you'd like to know more about me, ask away :)"
Why shouldn't we take Yan at his word? Well, he is a politician, or at least an aspiring politician. But, in this context, is the action of erasing information alone enough to conclude that there was something damning that was erased?
While it's fair for members of the public to want to trust Yan, to what extent can Yan trust the public? If there were a couple of inappropriate tweets in Yan's Twitter history five or six years back, could Yan expect the public to digest them with intelligence and an appropriate level of rational judgment?
Probably not, if the general public's record on social-media outrage is any indication.
Just last week, for example, Disney fired Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 writer and director James Gunn after a pile of his old tweets resurfaced on a far-right-wing website. "Resurfaced," as in they had already been a thing. Disney was aware of them back when it hired Gunn to write and direct the previous two Guardians of the Galaxy movies. But there was an uproar and so Disney threw him under the bus. He lost one of the most profitable franchises in cinema history.
Gunn's tweets were bad. But by all accounts, he's since grown up and is a good person.
If nobody in the age of social media is ever given a second chance, what is the world's current crop of teenagers—a generation of which an estimated 40 percent had profiles on social media literally before they knew language—going to do when it's their turn to run the show?
Until we're ready to give people a second chance, decisions like Yan's to delete social-media histories are going to remain a sensible first-step to entering public life.
As a journalist, my inclination is almost always to lean toward transparency over just about any sort of secrecy, into which Yan's decision to delete his old tweets does fall. So I don't like it. But, in 2018, I can't say that if I were Yan I would have done any differently.