Sarah-Lee Heinrich left her mark on Twitter with posts that were insulting, derogatory, homophobic and even contained fantasies of murder. But they were also the posts of a girl who was only 13 and 14 years old at the time.
The tweets would largely have been forgotten, and many indeed had already been deleted, but they attracted new attention seven years later, when Heinrich entered politics and was chosen as one of the spokespeople for the Young Greens — the Green Party’s youth organization — on October 9.
In a tweet posted earlier this week, as the controversy raged, Heinrich acknowledged she had posted “Heil” in response to a tweet of a swastika. She apologized for the tweet calling it “stupid and inappropriate,” while also admitting she had no memory of it. She said it did not reflect her beliefs and that she belongs to an anti-fascist youth organization.
Despite apologies, the debate has escalated to the point where Heinrich has withdrawn from public life. The Green Youth says she has received death threats.
Some have come to Heinrich’s defense, calling the tweets no more than a youthful indiscretion, but others see them as more than childish foolishness. Regardless of the seriousness of the particular case, it raises wider questions about social media, its role in society and how to deal with the digital sins of youth.
Naming and shaming online
A fundamental change has occurred in the culture of debate, according to Christoph Neuberger, of the Institute for Media and Communication Studies at the Free University Berlin. “We are seeing an intensification, often combined with moralizing and strong personalization. As a result, the internet is increasingly being used as a kind of modern-day stocks.”
Experts say the culture of debate has grown increasingly crude and unforgiving. But the Heinrich case shows a new dimension, in particular for young people, according to Georg Materna, a research associate at the Institute for Media Education in Research and Practice in Munich (JFF).
Georg Materna says young people are learning the hard way about online shaming
Social media was previously seen as a place where young people interacted with their peers and developed their identities, but now it is increasingly part of the public political sphere. “This also has to do with the rise of right-wing populism and Islamism, which have made very targeted and clever use of social media to publicize positions they cannot publish in the mass media,” says Materna.
A private public space?
If social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and TikTok are not just for entertainment, then the old rules no longer apply. Young people have to watch out not only for unflattering party pictures, but for political statements. “Studies have shown that young people are well aware that they can face internet outrage when they post about political topics on social media, and that makes them act with restraint,” says Materna.
An online survey by the Institute for Youth Culture Research in Austria found that young people create time-limited content in order to protect their privacy. One popular option is Stories on Instagram, which are only visible for 24 hours.
But even that is no guarantee. “If you put your mind to it, you can document everything. Technically, there is no complete protection,” says Neuberger. That’s why, he says, it is even more important that young users practice restraint.
Materna said the companies that control social networks were beginning to understand that “they are also political public spaces and not just neutral social networks.” But, he said, the more important issue is how society reacts to the changing political discourse as the amount of online content increases.
Sooner, more intense and more vicious
Previous generations have also been confronted with compromising events from their youth. In 2001, the magazine Stern published photos of then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer at violent left-wing demonstrations in the 1970s. The minister showed remorse, and there were no political consequences.
In Heinrich’s case, the tweets don’t date back 30 years, but just seven. And she is at the beginning of her career. “The search for missteps in the digital world will increase,” says Materna. “The fact that it’s mainly young politicians who are affected is probably due to the fact that they have been using social networks since their earliest days.”
But journalists also have to ask themselves how they will deal with such openly accessible “youthful indiscretions” in the future. It is not just a question of holding someone accountable for something they said as a minor, but dealing with the fact that some of the outraged social media campaigns were initiated by right-wing accounts. Before the Twitter storm started, Heinrich said she was already being targeted by right-wing posters.
The weekly newspaper Die Zeit examined the case of journalist Nemi El-Hassan, who was accused of problematic “likes” on social media and of participating in an antisemitic demonstration years before she was supposed to begin working as a TV presenter at the public broadcaster WDR. The controversy appears to have cost her the position.
The effects of such revelations and the speed of public judgment creates questions for journalists. “As a journalist, it is one thing to come across compromising content during research. But it’s something else to pick up on content that is deliberately spread by extremist groups, giving them a much wider reach,” says Materna.
These changes in society mean that young politicians will have to adapt quickly. As “net natives,” they have larger digital footprints than previous generations, and what they share and post will have repercussions years later, should they decide to go into politics.