On Wednesday, an opposition group that is now actively campaigning against freshman Congressman Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina released a video that showed the Republican lawmaker naked in bed and thrusting his groin at another person’s head. The video was first published by American Muckrakers PAC, a political group that is reported to run the “Fire Madison Cawthorn” website, in advance of the state’s May 17 primary.
The video, which had been passed to the group by a “former supporter” of Cawthorn, has since trended across social media with the hashtag “madisoncawthornvideo.”
The video appears to show the 26-year-old freshman congressman screaming and chanting as he thrust his pelvis against an unidentified man. Another individual, who is believed to have filmed the encounter on a smartphone, could be heard laughing in the background and telling Cawthorn to “stick it in his face.”
Rep. Cawthorn responded to the video on Wednesday evening via a tweet from his verified social media account (@CawthornforNC), “A new hit against me just dropped. Years ago, in this video, I was being crass with a friend, trying to be funny. We were acting foolish, and joking. That’s it. I’m NOT backing down. I told you there would be a drip drip campaign. Blackmail won’t win. We will.”
This is just the latest controversy for the congressman, who is facing an unusually crowded GOP primary for an incumbent Congressman. Last month, several photos emerged on social media that showed Cawthorn dressed in women’s lingerie.
Career Ruining Moments?
It was the late Democrat Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards who famously boasted during a successful election campaign in 1983, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
That was of course long before the days of smartphones and social media, where past “deeds” or “actions” could come back and haunt anyone.
“Today social media and the Internet can amplify a message like this,” explained Dr. Chris Haynes, associate professor of international affairs and political science at the University of New Haven.
“Anything that can be really embarrassing could be career-ending, and not just for politicians,” warned Haynes. “Anyone with an iPhone can quickly record something controversial or embarrassing and send it around the world.”
While Cawthorn has certainly become a lightning rod for controversy, he is far from the only lawmaker to come under scrutiny for questionable acts and statements that quickly make the rounds on social media.
“This goes to a deeper question, what do we expect from our politicians,” pondered Haynes. “We want them to be perfect, we want them to be a step up from the rest of us, yet authentic, and that is a very unrealistic standard.”
Social Media Is Weaponizing The Past
It remains unclear when the apparent encounter between Cawthorn and the other individual took place, or even how American Muckrakers PAC obtained the video, but this also isn’t the first time that actions from someone’s past have resurfaced and been shared on the social platforms.
“In this way, social media has revolutionized politics, for good and bad,” said Haynes. “We have seen a new breed of politicians who gained popularity by exploiting social media. They live and die by the social media sword.”
It is certainly harder than ever to keep the “skeletons in the closet,” yet we should question whether we want our politics to become about simply dredging up more dirt on the other side, especially in an era where misinformation is so common. Additionally, technology is making it easier than ever to manipulate video. Cawthorn didn’t dispute the authenticity of this video, but we’ve already seen that Deepfakes and edited images have made the rounds on social media.
“We should be concerned that anyone can so easily manipulate the message,” warned Haynes. “Once a story is out there, it is impossible to contain. We also have to worry about how nefarious actors, including those from other countries, are already trying to wage an information war. Social media is so instantaneous that it can make it challenging for us to maintain our freedom when disinformation can spread so quickly.”
The other worrisome trend – whether it is a video of Cawthorn or tweets about Hunter Biden’s laptop – is that both sides have increasingly engaged in a scorched earth policy to use social media to destroy the other side. Instead of focusing on the issues that a candidate may stand for, it is increasingly about finding the worst thing he or she has done and sharing that to the masses.
“It is unfortunate that we are so polarized that people don’t even think before they would go public with the dirt they have on their political enemies,” said Haynes. “It is more about the tribe than our society and country. Yet, this is the age we live in, and I don’t know if there is an answer to curb this.”