Tweet like a politician … ideally, thinking about how it’ll be read and misread

Tools like Twitter and Facebook can make a politician into a one person media outlet, broadcasting what they hear, see and think without the mediation of the traditional broadcast and print media. Gone are the days of being off-the-record and silent until a reporter turns up to note your words.

Politicians can be online and on-the-record all day and every day. Yet these tools carry the risk that context is lost and nuance is unstated.

During elections social media is blessed with candidates’ online utterances, and there is a ready supply of material to be labelled with the #tweetlikeanmla hashtag.

In order to downplay the serious, robotic politician-speak, some of our local elected representatives let down their guard and talk online about their candid impressions of life. Social media becomes a very natural window into their lives. Peter Robinson showed his human side when he once explained how he fell into the fish pond in his garden. Gerry Adams both entertains and worries his followers with stories of his teddy bear and observations about squirrels.

Conall McDevitt tweet David Vance reply

On Thursday, SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt – himself a former public relations consultant and master of the dark art of spin – threw out the observation:

Got on bike today. Got soaked. Changed. Got in car. Billy Bragg. Meeting. Got back in car. Elvis Costello. Thatcher’s legacy? Great music!

138 characters, highlighting artists who had a political bent to their songs and performances and sometimes a less than charitable view of the UK’s former prime minister. He didn’t say which radio station – or whether he was playing MP3s – or which song. So it’s quite a leap to suggest he was singling out Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down. I’d say you’d be actively seeking to be offended to jump to that conclusion.

Any statement made by politicians in the first couple of weeks after her death will be examined with a fine tooth comb. Supportive? Critical? Deferential? Disrespectful? Balanced? Crawling? Consistent with previous statements?

Context is everything when you’re limited to 140 characters. Before anyone’s finger hits the Send or Tweet button – and particularly if you’re in the public eye like a politician – you need to think about how what you’re about to say might be misinterpreted, misconstrued or even shortened.

Paris Brown – ex-Youth Police and Crime Commissioner for Kent – provided a recent object lesson in the need to think before you tweet.

What you say online has a permanency and a findability that didn’t exist ten years ago. (Though if Paris Brown had successfully hidden her violence-condoning, hash brownie-loving and racist thoughts, I’m still not sure she’d have been a good candidate for her Police and Crime position.)

It was noted last Monday and Tuesday that many NI politicians were very slow to make any comments online about the death and legacy of Lady Thatcher. There was wisdom in their silence.

Spontaneity and throw away comments about socialist musicians in the same sentence as a reference to a deceased and controversial prime minister were too risky to be casually shared.

It’s a non-story. Yet equally Conall should have thought twice before offering his opinion on the politically inspired music scene and creating a potential non-story. Particularly since the tweet provides easy ammunition for anyone disliking the SDLP or Conall.

It would be a shame if politicians and public figures reverted to being bland. They need to let their personalities out and live a little. But they also need to think before they tweet.

It’s so easy – perhaps lazy – to write a news story, an opinion piece, or even a blog post, criticising a politician’s tweets. Having agreed to talk about Gerry Adams tweets on The View and written this post, I can be guilty of that too. Few Twitter stories are earth-shattering. And many feel like column-inch fodder rather than serious reporting.

Then there’s David Vance’s reply to Conall:

@ConallMcD Hey Conal. Since you are such a Costello fan, why not recite lyrics to this? SDLP legacy..

It’s a link to a YouTube version of the Elvis Costello song How to be dumb. Rather than being foolish, that was just plain rude.

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  • jthree

    In the McDevitt

  • jthree

    …case it seems like the key point was that it was a good old fashioned case of a lazy hack also being a malicious halfwit. Once a grown up at the Newsletter saw the ‘story’ it disappeared down the memory hole quicksmart.

  • Comrade Stalin

    What the hell do you expect from Vance ? No doubt he’ll show up and regale us with a quip before scurrying off again.

  • Oh my.

    1. How to be dumb is such a great Costello song with a fabulous chorus. I was doing a public service, Alan. Roll over your back and repeat after me…

    2. All the shy retiring Conall had to do was explain WHICH (or is that Witch) Costello song he was listening to as he cycled around bringing joy unbounded.

    3. I seem to recall Conall being ever so agitated when I tweeted a while back. I stood over my tweet….wonder why he ran away?

    4. Vile Dhimmi Galloway stands over his hatred for Lady Thatcher – can’t little Conall?

    Now then..back to the chorus, repeat after me…

  • sherdy

    One word describes both tweets – twaddle.

  • 6crealist

    Vance is a professional troll. I respect his views, but he seems to revel in vulgarity and ad hominems.

    Some day, his fat fingers and inflammatory gob will get him into trouble with the authorities.

  • Oh blimey. i just wade into Slugger, provide a helpful Costello reference and I have “fat fingers”. I do enjoy the profound political insights though.

  • Great tweet from Conall.
    It was intended to be ambiguous.
    We are now in a situation where BBC bans songs NOT for their content (and I go all the way back to Let’s Spend The Night Together and Je T’Aime) but for the reason people bought the song.
    It’s absolute madness.
    If BNP urged downloading Vera Lynn singing the White Cliffs of Dover 40,000 times…the BBC have now set a precedent.
    They can’t play it because of the motivation for playing it.
    This is something that any extreme political party can now do to highlight their cause.
    If extreme loyalists could persuade 40,000 people to download Sloop John B.
    If Im reading Conall right….and he didn’t mention radio….he implied that he was listening to particular songs by Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello for”political” reasons and further linked it to Thatchers legacy.
    I wish I had thought of it….and I probably will.

  • Comrade Stalin

    David, you’re so clichéd it’s untrue.

  • Comrade

    I’m hurt. I put on a nose peg, come here, and all I get is lack of love. What can I say? Oh yes….”Roll over on your back, repeat after me…”

  • Neil

    Say what you like about Conall, at least he has a mandate. As to the tweet, some people are going to be quite touchy about what’s appropriate at this stage regarding Thatcher but let’s not assume the wall to wall deification of Thatcher is affecting us all. Conall’s from a left of centre Nationalist party so I’d say his electorate’s sensitivities will be well enough catered to by his not making Ding Dong jokes. At least he found something positive to say in regard to “Thatcher’s legacy”.

  • Is there a mandate for hatred? I suppose you are right, Neil, Sinn Fein voters prove it. But I would respect shy retiring non media Conall IF he had the guts to explain his tweet, as I did mine.

  • To those who understand the Tweet, no explanation is necessary.
    That was the entire point of it.

  • What’s that sound? Feet running away…?

  • FJH – nicely put.

  • Ah, the Slugger Illuminati get it. Sweet. So, WHICH song did he reference and why not explain.

  • He didn’t reference any. It’s in my imagination. And yours.
    If it was me (and I wish it was) Id get a lot of satisfaction from people not getting it.
    And I never thought I was in the Slugger illuminati.

  • FJH

    Leave it at “you never thought”. It’s kinder on yourself.

  • See…you CAN do it.

  • The Raven

    “Tweet like a politician … ideally, thinking about how it’ll be read and misread”

    No such ambiguity over some of Mr Poots’ tweets. Verging on inflammatory in some instances. One to watch as he eventually oversteps the mark.

  • RegisterForThisSite

    “Got on bike today. Got soaked. Changed. Got in car. Billy Bragg. Meeting. Got back in car. Elvis Costello. Thatcher’s legacy?”

    More honest Tweet would be
    “Got on bike, Got in car……Jumped on Political Bandwagon..”

    No fan of career politicians like Conall, obvious question to him is how did Thatcher affect you growing up in Spain?
    Had he had success in getting his career of the ground with the Irish Labour Party his Tweets would more than likely have been the opposite in tone and content. and aimed at a different audience

  • Professor Yattle

    I think the important point being made here is that Anal in Belfast really wants back on television.

  • Comrade Stalin

    David Vance,

    If work at the BBC dries up you can always apply for the post of PR spokesperson for Millwall FC.

  • “Yet equally Conall should have thought twice before offering his opinion on the politically inspired music scene and creating a potential non-story.”

    Alan, if you scan Conall’s tweets, you might well come to the conclusion that he’d had a second bite of the cherry, that he’d just summarised an Irish Times article by Patrick Frayne:

    Conall McDevitt ‏@ConallMcD 13 Apr A really mature piece – Comics, comedy and Communards: Margaret Thatcher and pop culture

  • Neil

    Is there a mandate for hatred?

    I dunno David you tell me. The point I was making was that Conall has a mandate, as in he got enough votes to get elected. I can see how this may confuse you.

    I suppose you are right, Neil, Sinn Fein voters prove it.

    Eh? We’re talking about Conall, he’s in the SDLP. But I can see how you could be subtly pointing out that some people are obsessed with their hatred that they feel inclined towards steering every thread in a given direction. Sinn Fein IRA.

    But I would respect shy retiring non media Conall IF he had the guts to explain his tweet, as I did mine.

    This must be where you’re going wrong. Conall’s most likely concerned with his electorate, who won’t mind, which may in turn lead to him being succesful yet again when next he stands.

  • Shibboleth

    “He didn’t say which radio station or which song.”

    So how do we know it was radio? Just shows you, Alan read into it what Conall didn’t actually say. Be wary of castigating others for doing the same!

    So are we to understand Conall believes Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello are only what they are because of Thatcher? Costello’s chart success predates 1979.

  • Comrade Stalin

    which may in turn lead to him being succesful yet again when next he stands.

    .. scraping in at the last count with his tail between his legs.

  • 6crealist

    “.. scraping in at the last count with his tail between his legs.”

    In fairness, McDevitt’s solitary appearance before the electorate went rather better than each of Vance’s.

  • Neil

    Beat me to it 6crealist. That was indeed the point I was driving at.

  • Comrade Stalin


    No dispute from me. Vance is a failed politician, doubly so when you consider how easily someone with his dead-end clichéd politics can get elected in this end of the world.

  • “you’re so clichéd it’s untrue”

    Where would politicians be without their clichés, their comfort blankets.

    CS, IIRC you’re an APNI supporter and it’s current banner carries the slogan, “For Everyone”. About one person in twenty votes APNI whereas about ten don’t even vote at all. “We’re working to build a shared society, without division, free from sectarianism and prejudice” has been around such a long time yet there appears to be no understanding of the implications of the 1998 constitutional arrangement for the very opposite!

    Conall isn’t to be found wanting when it comes to clichés. Many moons ago, I asked him to elaborate on his understanding when he re-heated Hume’s ideas on regionalism, what he meant by ‘region’. He said NI was a region of Ireland, a region of Europe. Being a dyed-in-the-wool Irish nationalist, he’d overlooked the option that NI was also a region of the UK. From his February 2013 speech, it’s clear he’s made some progress but still has some way to go:

    Our home is a region of Ireland. Our dream is for it to flourish under the flag of our nation. Others hope it will remain a region of the UK. But we all surely agree that it is ‘our’ region and it needs governed for the benefit of all our people.

    Unfortunately, our elected representatives struggle to even collaborate for the benefit of the district.