Thursday, 5 January 2012

Public figures on twitter, do they need to stop and think?

Today Labour MP Dianne Abbot has made it into the news after making a comment on twitter which was construed by some as being racist.

The comment was apparently made during an exchange with a journalist following the Stephen Lawrence verdict, and Ms Abbot said, as part of an ongoing exchange that “white people love playing divide & rule we should not play their game #tacticasoldasclonialism”.

Numerous accusations of racism have followed, along with calls by conservative MP’s for ms Abbot’s resignation, hardly surprising really, there’s nothing the media and politicians love more than to call for a resignation when someone in opposition steps out of line..

Dianne Abbot has apologized for her comment, saying that it was taken out of context.

But I do think there is a different element to this, which is the prevalence of public figures on twitter and their seeming inability to think before they tweet.

Many politicians as well as celebrities use twitter, and Dianne Abbot is not the first to hit the news for comments made on twitter, and she almost certainly won’t be the last.

Twitter is easy. You can access it on a computer, or on your mobile phone, and it’s a great way to just make a quick comment or two, and it also puts you out there, which I imagine is especially useful if you’re a public figure wanting to get your message across.

Indeed, I will share this blog post via twitter once I’ve finished writing it, which means that it might reach another 140 or so people that wouldn’t otherwise have seen it.

But the problem arises when public figures end up tweeting what are essentially their private thoughts, and are then held accountable for them. And by the time you’ve sent the tweet, it’s too late, and even if you delete it, it can’t be unsaid.

Dianne Abbot’s tweet was essentially part of what should have been a private discussion between two individuals, but instead was tweeted back and forth on the public timeline, meaning that anyone could read it, and did.

I’ve posted before about people who share their private lives on the internet, and have made the point that generally, you wouldn’t stand in the street and broadcast many of your opinions publically, so how is it that online is different?

And unlike the anonymous web forums I wrote about last month, twitter generally isn’t anonymous, especially if you’re a public figure. People know who Dianne Abbot or Lord Sugar, or Rupert Murdoch are on twitter, and generally they have tens or sometimes even hundreds of thousands of followers who read their every word and will happily comment on, and retweet any undesirable comments until one comment has
spiraled far beyond those followers on to the wider twitter community and then often into the media. And these people are generally fairly media savvy individuals, who know that if a comment is taken out of context that could be costly for them in terms of their reputation and in some instances even their job. So how is it that they seem to lose sight of that fact when posting publically accessible comments on a public timeline?

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