You have to be something of a masochist to want to get into politics – and Zack Weiner is an unapologetic masochist. Last week, the 26-year-old, who is running for a place on the city council in New York, was something of a nonentity: he had zero name recognition and his campaign had raised just over $10,000 (£7,200), most of which he had donated himself.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Weiner was the fact his dad is the co-creator of the kids’ TV show Dora the Explorer. But that changed when a video of a man engaged in consensual sadomasochism was posted on Twitter by an anonymous account that claimed the man was Weiner. On Saturday, the New York Post ran a story about the video, complete with salacious screengrab. Pretty soon it made international headlines.
Why would anyone care about the sex life of an unknown twentysomething running for local office? Well, because a lot of people are pervs, for one thing. But the main reason the story has become so popular is because of how Weiner responded. Instead of going on the defensive, he owned it. His own campaign manager was the one who tipped off the New York Post about the video and Weiner told the paper that he is a “proud BDSMer”, who has nothing to be ashamed of.
“Whoops. I didn’t want anyone to see that, but here we are,” Weiner later wrote on Twitter. “Like many young people, I have grown into a world where some of our most private moments have been documented online. While a few loud voices on Twitter might chastise me for the video, most people see the video for what it is: a distraction.”
There was some speculation that the video was a publicity stunt. Releasing a sex tape of yourself in order to kickstart a political career might once have been unthinkable, but in today’s attention economy it is all too plausible. Donald Trump taught the world that any idiot can get into politics as long as you find a way to keep your name in the headlines.
Then there’s the fact that Weiner’s response to the video is almost identical to a plotline from the TV show Billions. “I’m a masochist,” the character Chuck Rhoades announces in a press conference after a political rival threatens to leak pictures of him enjoying sadomasochistic sex in an attempt to derail his campaign for state attorney general for New York. Rhoades’s speech is a huge success: he goes on to win the election.
So is it possible that Weiner’s campaign, inspired by Billions, might have leaked the video itself? Absolutely not, Joseph Gallagher, Weiner’s campaign manager, told me. He added, for good measure, that neither he nor Weiner, who is also an actor and screenwriter, had ever watched the TV show. The reason he flagged the video to the Post, he clarified, was in order to control the narrative and get ahead of the story. Which makes sense.
Ultimately, what’s important is the fact that, as Weiner pointed out, a generation of young people who have documented every part of their lives are starting to enter politics. Revenge porn, which has already helped derail the political career of the former congresswoman Katie Hill, is going to become a common political weapon. And I suspect female politicians will have a far harder time surviving the weaponisation of their personal lives than men.