Falmouth by-election: the transparency of social media

By Luke Lavender

Now before I begin, this article isn’t a rant on social media and its ills. It’s an article on two areas of life, political speculation and the necessity of being continually cognisant of the present and future. Both encapsulated in the recent by-election in Falmouth.

First, let’s start with this by-election and see why it leads to grander concerns of social-media. I know by-elections aren’t an eye-watering sight, believe you me they don’t get me ecstatic or interested either; but there are always exemptions from this standard.

As integral as local government is, it’s hard to get excited about the possibilities of voting for a new Falmouth Town Councillor for the Smithwick ward by-election, especially considering the sad need for the by-election, that is, previous Labour councillor, Candy Atherton’s death.

Yet, this situation unraveled both into a scandal, by local standards anyway, but also a lesson, with the publishing of screenshots from Facebook, detailing some inappropriate Facebook posts shared in the past from the Conservative candidate, an ex-student from Exeter, Richard Cunningham.

Now, before remarking on the inappropriateness of the comments, we must turn our eyes to some political interest. Namely, who did it, and why?

The logic behind an act such as this was explained to me via an anonymous source at the Falmouth Packet. Obviously, the first assumptions as to who posted this would be a rival party, namely Labour or the Liberal Democrats. One must also consider the possibility of this information being shared from a former-classmate of Cunningham, or strange as it may seem, a member of his own party.

Admittedly, without knowledge of the truth, I can only speculate through my source alongside my own judgements of the situation. The important fact is the immensely damaging coverage was released on January 26th, notably, it was posted after postal-votes were submitted and could not be changed; a factor that may not have resulted in a huge swing, but something to be considered.

Subsequently, while it could be assumed as a way of garnering further political support, it seems unlikely that Labour or the Lib-Dems would have released this, for if they did, why would they release the information after the postal vote date? This deduction brings us to consider the two other potential informants, a former classmate, or the Conservative party itself. While I can offer no answer, direct speculation is not something this article aims at, the attempt of comprehending whom may be responsible gives an opportunity to provoke thought to the political games which can surface in local politics, and the role social media plays in this.

The possible motives for a former classmate could be a plethora of factors, revenge, a distaste for the political views, or bringing to light a person they don’t consider fit for office.  The contemplation of the Conservative party being involved is more tenuous unless you’re a firm believer in realpolitik, which is why I shan’t state it as fact. I believe the only motivation from the Conservative side to mar their own candidate, is a concern of this information arising later if he was to be successful politically; in short, damage control – better now than later.

Despite all these musings, Labour won both seats, and unlike what was predicted there was no swing to the Lib-Dems and their vote actually decreased (by 1%). All in all, this speculation didn’t match reality, still, this is just a case and illustration of the ideas and processes that could be going on behind the closed doors of the political process.

Now to the meat of the matter, rather than my informed speculation – what can be learned and what was published? ‘Cornish Stuff’ was the first source to release the information, along with ‘The Falmouth Packet’, followed closely by the BBC and other reputable publications.

The arising articles revealed Cunningham had in the past commented on and shared seriously politically incorrect and offensive Facebook posts concerning Nazis, anti-immigration rhetoric, support for far-right demonstrations and a reference to Ernst Rohm in relation to the LGBTQ community.

Highlighting this information of Cunningham’s past online presence is not too show up and slander conservatives and disrespect their politics, campaigns or principles. The point is, regardless of your political affiliation, awareness – an awareness that is ever decreasing in our online world.

Subsequently, by speaking about this content I do not endorse the posts made but make a call for lessons that should be learned.  Whatever humour or ideas amuse you online, there is a need to consider the effect your actions of commenting or sharing this information, either publicly or ‘privately’, to your Facebook friends can have on the people reading it and on your own image.

I am sure the case of Richard Cunningham is not an isolated one in the politically-incorrect posts of the online world we traverse so much. This does not mean we should condone this behaviour, it means we should be conscious of our behaviour, be it the negative impact of what you consider ironic, satirical or humorous.

We must learn and be wary that these posts are not just pixels on a screen, as this unfortunate event demonstrates terribly well – the personal is political.

What you do on your seemingly irrelevant Facebook page cannot always be read in all innocence. The results of these actions damage not only your own present and future reputation – as Richard Cunningham has found. But, more importantly, this unchecked publishing on social media hurts and impact others’.


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