POLITICIANS have long lived with the threat of being voted, heaved or impeached from office but could the day be looming when one of them faces the humiliation of being tweeted out of a job?
To those who doubted the relevance of the humble tweet, this week’s Twittergate affair has been not so much a wake-up call as a wake-up dunking in an ice-cold shower with Megadeth blasting out of the waterproof radio.
No longer simply the plaything of garrulous youth (Lady Gaga is, after all, the world’s most followed Tweeter), the tweet has proven its power by bringing to heel in a single day a head of Government who had managed to brush off criticism from the mainstream media for over two years.
Speed was partly the reason Simon Coveney’s tweet was so devastatingly effective. His 137-character demolition of Brian Cowen (140 is the limit per tweet) appeared on the internet for general viewing and on the mobile phones of dedicated followers within minutes of the Taoiseach’s final fumbled words on Morning Ireland.
The exact tweet was: “God, what an uninspiring interview by Taoiseach this morning. He sounded half way between drunk and hungover and totally disinterested...”
It allowed journalists, already discussing Cowen’s performance with euphemistic references to head colds, to cut to the chase and ask him directly about the suggestions of drink being responsible for his demeanour.
That he denied the suggestions outright didn’t matter. Reporters could now write and air the words ‘Taoiseach’ and ‘drunk’ in the same sentence and a media sensation was born.
Media analyst Stephen O’Leary tracked how the story grew throughout the day and found that within 24 hours of the broadcast, 457 articles appeared in 400 publications in 26 countries and at least 1,738 comments appeared on online social media sites. There were 1,600 fresh tweets and over 66 account holders retweeted (republished) the original tweet.
It’s impossible to know the number of private text messages and emails that were also sent but the level of public interest can also be gauged by hits on YouTube where, by yesterday morning, Cowen’s interview had been played back 90,000 times while a parody song and video created for radio station 98FM had been replayed over 116,000 times.
The pen may be mightier than the sword but with Twitter, you don’t even have to wait for the ink to dry to make an impact.
All of which raises issues for those who want to get a message out in public, conceal one from the public or at least control the manner in which it emerges.
TJ McIntyre, a lecturer at University College Dublin specialising in information technology and civil rights, said different standards should apply to tweets than to traditional media.
“It would be a mistake to treat every tweet as if it were Barack Obama making a state of the nation address,” he said.
“With 140 characters there is no pressure to write a considered, long and detailed account which makes Twitter much more suitable for making instant replies and gives it the character of conversation.”
That doesn’t denigrate the medium in his eyes, however, as he believes Twitter, and social media in general, makes a real contribution to freedom of expression.
“The national, or even international, conversation is no longer dominated by the mainstream media. The way it used to be, politicians’ public relations officers could focus on the national newspapers and RTÉ and be much more in control of the message.
“Traditionally they have been able to lean on the media, using the threat of withdrawing access when dealing with the papers and the implicit threat of the licence fee or other state controls when dealing with RTÉ but you can not control the public conversation.”
But while some see Twitter et al as contributing to freedom of speech, others would argue it simply gives freedom to bitch.
There have been no proceedings involving tweets yet in Ireland but several cases have come before the courts arising from comments on other online media, including blogs.
Lawyer David Whelan of Hayes Solicitors said for someone genuinely aggrieved by comments published by social media, the process of seeking redress can be daunting.
“The reality of the internet is by the time something is said, it’s already being dispersed so all the comment can be out there before a complainant has time to act.”
Many social media users, including Tweeters, use pseudonyms which can add to the difficulty of pinpointing blame. “There are practical difficulties but they are not insurmountable. There are inquiries you can make from the creator of the site and the plaintiff could rely on the same discovery mechanisms available in all court cases but it is a pretty big hammer you’re using to crack a walnut.”
TJ McIntyre said it may be more effective to file a criminal harassment complaint with the gardaí.
He would hate to see any attempt to censor the likes of Twitter, beyond the site’s own policy of closing accounts used to impersonate people or to disperse violent threats or pornography.
Those are the extreme cases, however. What most concerns public figures after this week is the speed with which ordinary conversation featuring fair, if cutting, comment can build momentum and create a crisis. “It used to be the case that there could be many people who knew something to be true but it never appeared in the media — like the behaviour of Charles Haughey.
“It could be contained because it didn’t exist as a media fact. That was okay so long as you had two distinct channels of communication — media output and public conversation — but they’re not distinct any more.”
That dilemma emerged in Britain in recent weeks when several premier league footballers secured injunctions preventing newspapers publishing allegations about their private lives.
The newspapers had to comply but the allegations were raging uncontrolled on social media sites. While the law can enforce a blackout on a few dozen newspaper titles, it hasn’t found a way to gag the potentially billions of voices that make up social media.
That creates all sorts of problems, not only for newspapers as they struggle for relevance in a world of ever-evolving new media, but also for politicians.
“They would love to be in a position to control social media but they haven’t a clue how to go about it,” says Mr McIntyre. “Personally, I’m delighted they haven’t.”
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