Belfast Telegraph

Why 'think before you tweet' should be golden rule for NI's politicians

The clue's in the name... it's called social media and it's many things, but private isn't one of them, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Why do they keep on doing it? Public figures saying stupid things on social media, that is.

The latest eejit to fall prey is Rhodri Philipps, 4th Viscount St Davids no less, who found himself in hot water after offering £5,000 on Facebook to "the first person to 'accidentally' run over" anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller.

He insisted it was just "satire"; but as a result of that, and other racially aggravated outbursts, the loose-lipped lord is currently beginning a 12-week sentence behind bars.

Apparently he's now "permanently deleted" all his social media accounts, so at least one sinner's learned his lesson. Plenty of others, politicians included, have still not wised up to the dangers. "Think before you tweet" should be the golden rule, but fingers have minds of their own. They've written the offending message and pressed send before the brain has processed what's going on.

There may be too many political representatives in Northern Ireland who are familiar with the inside of a cell, but so far none have been sent to prison for their activities on social media.

However it's only a matter of time before one of them goes too far and becomes the news, rather than simply commenting on it 24/7 via their smartphones.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams is almost as infamous for his surreal Twitter account these days as he is for claiming never to have been in the IRA.

Another of the party's MLAs got into trouble for 'liking' a Facebook post about the former First Minister that included an offensive hashtag with Arlene Foster's name in it, while a further Sinn Fein councillor was forced to apologise recently after describing Bangor as a "sh**hole".

It would appear that encouraging all your elected representatives to get out there on social media and spread the message can have its downsides as well. Fancy that!

Unionists are far from immune. The first ever TUV councillor on Belfast City Council was strongly criticised for sectarian comments she left online as a teenager, while Jim Wells of the DUP was chided earlier this year for messages stating that Sinn Fein canvassers in Rathfriland were "not welcome in this unionist town".

Ruth Patterson was even arrested a while back for leaving apparently supportive comments under a Facebook story imagining a terrorist attack on senior republicans.

Charges were later dropped, but she accepted the posts were inappropriate. The point is that trouble could have been avoided entirely with a little forethought. The internet is a public space. The clue's in the name of social media. It's many things, not all admirable, but private isn't one of them.

South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly of the DUP would have spared herself a headache by remembering that.

She got into a late night Twitter exchange last week following comments she made about controversial effigies on Eleventh Night bonfires being an expression of a "free society". She explained at length what she meant, but broke some of the cardinal rules for politicians who go online, as listed by the BBC's own social media trainer. Rule One: Don't tweet late at night. Rule Two: Don't get drawn into arguments. Rule Three: Always consider if what you're saying could be taken out of context. Twitter itself publishes a 136-page guide for politicians, including advice on Page 30 about how to delete a tweet, though by then it's usually too late. Once it's noticed and screenshotted, it's there for ever. Entire websites are devoted to archiving the deleted messages of politicians.

There are undoubted advantages for candidates in embracing social media. It heightens their public profile. They can interact more freely with constituents. They get to address voters directly, without having to sneak past the gatekeepers of traditional media (when Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister, Mrs Foster gave her first response in a video posted to Facebook rather than at a Press conference, where she would've been assailed with questions. It's the one place where you can keep absolute control of the content and the way it's presented - though what happens to it afterwards is, of course, still out of your hands).

The risk is that opening themselves up to the public leaves politicians vulnerable to a torrent of abuse from the disaffected, disenfranchised or just plain mentally ill. Mrs Foster has been subjected to plenty of that too.

Worst of all, there's no one else to blame when it all goes wrong. Like many celebrities who've either abandoned or cut down their online presence, politicians are discovering that keeping up an image is often more trouble than it's worth. On Facebook and Twitter a furious row is only ever a click away.

It's harder still to tell them to stop tweeting when even the US President behaves like a demented internet troll, and when so many people are glued to their smartphones morning, noon and night that they're otherwise unreachable.

Politicians also tend to be sociable creatures by nature. They have to be. All that small talk and pressing the flesh at an endless round of meetings, engagements and fundraisers would send them doolally otherwise. Advising them to give up this rich channel of instant communication in their own hands would be a cruel and unusual punishment indeed.

But something is only worth doing if the benefits outweigh the risks, and it's not entirely clear that they do in these cases.

You can't make complex political points in 140 characters, and jokes are too risky. Some people live to take offence. There's always someone waiting to trip up the unwary. Molehills are turned into mountains with alarming frequency.

It makes one wonder why politicians bother. An ill-advised tweet can ruin a promising political career.

Keeping up a constant stream of messages online is simply handing your enemies the ammunition to advance your own downfall.

It will be a shame if that forces them to hide behind bland soundbites rather than saying what they actually think, but they could hardly be blamed if that's what they decided to do.

It might be amusing for Joe Public to watch elected representatives nervously walk that tightrope, but what do politicians get out of it?

That's the mystery. Are their egos really so huge that they couldn't cope without the perpetual drip-feed of attention?

If that's the case, we ought to pity them rather than goading them into further gaffes, because, in cyber space, someone can always hear you scream.

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