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A Killer App for the Age of Gotcha Politics

BY Matthew Burton | Wednesday, April 21 2010

Ms. Kagan, considered by some Democrats as the most likely candidate, could be hard for Republicans to block given her lack of a judicial paper trail...

That's from a recent New York Times article on potential Supreme Court nominees.

In the past, there were no paper trails. Not just for your personal life, but for your professional life as well. It was difficult to dig up shocking details on someone you wanted to discredit.

In the future, this will be incredibly easy. But it won't matter, because that ease will make such information so common, it won't be scandalous anymore. Who cares if John Smith likes to do something naughty, or once said something that sounds horrifying when taken out of context, when we can quickly identify thousands of other public figures with similar histories?

Right now, we're in a sweet spot: the in-between period, where it's really easy to find juicy details, but those details are still novel enough to outrage the general public. Combined with the Republicans' current strategy of holding up even non-controversial appointees, this situation makes for messy politics and a dysfunctional government. It leads to situations like the one we're seeing now with Elena Kagan, where her attractiveness as a Supreme Court candidate is about more than just her qualifications and intellect; it's also about her lack of track record. She could very well be the woman for the job, based completely on merit. But if press reports are accurate, short-term political risk is helping drive a decision with very long-term consequences.

The public's inability to learn about a prospective public leader actually makes that person more likely to be hired. That can't be right.

The current administration is so eager to avoid embarrassment that, as of the transition, it was asking prospective appointees to describe the most intimate contents of their diaries and list all of their online identities. You can't blame them: with politics having turned into a perpetual campaign, protecting yourself politically is vital to the policy process.

This hyper-vetting phenomenon will get worse before it gets better. It will become more common, and its effects more damaging, as members of the digital generation approach middle age. By then, most prospective appointees will have at least one datum that is both worth hiding and incapable of being hidden. That one datum will be enough to destroy their chances of confirmation. The crop of prospective appointees will shrink to those rare people who have little online experience. Such people will naturally be out of touch with their contemporaries, making them ill-suited leaders.

But this won't last forever, because society gradually becomes desensitized to once-scandalous revelations. The duration and severity of this sweet spot will depend on two things: the rate at which the public raises its threshold for being scandalized, and the rate at which the Web makes it easier to find scandalous information. If the latter is greater than the former, here's an idea for a killer app for gotcha politics that, if not already achievable, will be very soon:

  • Pick someone who is rumored to be on the short list of candidates for a presidential appointment.
    • Gather that person's email addresses, Twitter ID, Google account name, and OpenID URL. Plug this information into a form and hit Enter. It then performs the following automated tasks:
    • Using the Google ID, it collects all other social networking accounts the person has entered into their Google profile. It then crawls those sites in search of the listed account name and collects their public profile and public contributions.
    • It then searches for the other email addresses on dozens of other social networking sites to discover less prominent accounts, and collects those profiles and contributions as well.
    • Using Google's social map and the Twitter ID, it constructs a map of the person's social network. It then crawls prominent networks and gathers all of the contributions made by the person's friends.
    • Having collected this giant mass of wall posts, tweets, buzzes, photos, movies, blog comments, links, checkins, meetups, and updates to their bookshelves, it then runs the corpus against a list of terms associated with profanity; salaciousness; political opinions; controversial figures, movies and books; or anything else the user considers effective at discrediting the target.

Once this tool is perfected, it will end the sweet spot era and render itself useless. So in a weird way, I hope this tool is created as soon as possible.