This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Since the dawn of time (or, like, the late-1990s), the internet has been the source of a great deal of paranoia, much of it focused on the permanency of anything posted online. Once something is out there, it's out there for good, be it a comment in praise of Newzoids, or an aggressively close-up snap of your scrotum, the web will never forget such equally shameful moments.
Time was, you'd grow out of your "awful person" phase and could get on with your life without fear of the stuff you did when you were younger coming back to bite you. Now, any misdeed could present itself as a barrier when seeking gainful employment, or simply trying to pass as a credible adult human. We should absolutely be held accountable for our actions and beliefs, but we've now come so far in the opposite direction that we're wilfully denying people the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and grow. We live in an age where people totally unaffected by minor errors in a stranger's past actually, genuinely feel it's their moral duty to kick up a fuss. Sadly, these people will never go away; every time an ancient photo of a TV presenter snorting coke surfaces, they will be there, in your Twitter, on your timeline, screaming in outrage that someone involved in politics might have once tried cocaine. However, it's important that the rest of us learn to totally ignore them.
Recent examples of past social media misdemeanors being dredged up and used against their posters are numerous, but the latest was on Sunday night. In this case, DeRay McKesson—a man named by the LA Times as one of "the new civil rights leaders" for his prominent voice during the Ferguson protests—was forced to confront a tweet of his from 2013 in which he called for Chelsea Manning to be locked up for 35 years without parole.
It was genuinely surprising that McKesson could ever—let alone so recently—have held these views, such is his activism against the police state and his criticism of the kind of surveillance that Manning sacrificed her very freedom to expose. He also referred to Manning as "Bradley," although it's since been pointed out that the tweet was posted prior to the press release announcing Chelsea's transition, and DeRay has denied willfully misgendering her.
Although two years hardly seems like enough time to make great strides in one's personal views, DeRay has said most of his social awareness and activism began after Michael Brown's killing last August. Rather than deleting the original tweet and refusing to acknowledge it, he admitted he was ignorant to the issues back then, that he was wrong and that the tweet in no way reflects his current opinion. And honestly, that should be all he needs to say.
I've been on Twitter since I was 17. That's terrifying, because I was an even worse person at 17 than I am today. My first general election was 2010, and believing they would be the party to best represent my views, I voted for the Liberal Democrats, i.e. the party that allowed the Tories to completely fuck everything up for my generation. I was stupid five years ago, and christ forbid anyone digs up my old posts in support of this view when I eventually, inevitably become an internationally-recognized public figure. I mean, look at this garbage tweet. Recoil in the horror of its naivety and the inexplicable use of "wahey." Five years later, I doubt I could ever bring myself to vote for the party again.
A year after the election, Mark Duggan was shot dead by police, sparking riots across London. An inquest later concluded he was unarmed at the time of the shooting, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission admitted misleading journalists in the immediate aftermath. At the time, I sided with the cops.
In 14 years of state school, I can probably count on one hand all the classes I had in which every student wasn't white. I was hugely ignorant. I'd never considered quite what it was like to deal with the police as a young black man, because I'd never had to. That was four years ago, and I'm ashamed to look back on the person I was. However, thanks to the internet—particularly Twitter—I was able to educate myself, listen to voices that didn't sound like mine, and understand these experiences by going to the source, unadulterated by middle men.
As the recent media furore over Amnesty's calls to decriminalize sex work showed us, just about everyone except those directly affected was given a voice on the subject—which is why platforms such as Twitter are crucial. DeRay's ignorance on Chelsea Manning simply reflected the viewpoint put across by much of his country's media (not to mention the unwavering position on the issue held by the majority of US politicians, President Obama included), just as my opinion on the riots was informed by media coverage, before I was able to hear from independent voices.
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The person I was a few years ago, terrible tweets included, is not the person I am now: a person who occasionally does good tweets. While it's important that we are able to scrutinize this information from the past—particularly when it's indicative of hypocrisy—to continue to hold someone accountable for an opinion they have since distanced themselves from goes against the very nature of the internet: a portal of information with which we can continually better ourselves. Bad opinions must be called out, and if the person refuses to acknowledge ownership and demonstrate how they've changed, then, by all means, go in on them. But most of us fucked up sometime in the past and don't deserve to be punished for time already served: I'm ashamed of who I once was, because he was so different to the man I am today.
The internet is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal in the education of the masses; with it, we can seek out information from a much wider range of sources than ever before. But unless we're careful, our habits of digging up the past long after individuals have outgrown these opinions will prove devastatingly prohibitive. For once, let's at least try not to fuck this up too bad.
Follow Jack on Twitter.