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.
On Thursday, SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt – himself a former public relations consultant and master of the
art of spin – threw out the observation: dark
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.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppAdqPt8jj8
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.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.