Trouble in Twitter-land: tweeting without thinking

The last time the Minnesota House Ethics Committee considered a complaint against a lawmaker, the year was 2003 and Twitter.com did not even exist. Last week, committee members and others found themselves tripping over the Twitter lexicon at a hearing on a Democrat’s unflattering tweets about two Republicans during a budget debate.

The complaint filed against Rep. Paul Gardner, DFL-Shoreview, is one of several instances in recent months where pols, pundits, celebrities and job applicants have gotten into trouble by typing their thoughts and activities — in no more than 140 characters at a time — into what Twitter describes as a “real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices.” To wit:

• Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra, a ranking member of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, made news in February when he tweeted about his delegation’s trip to Iraq. The problem? Details of the trip were supposed to be kept secret.

Courtney Love
REUTERS/Danny Moloshok
Courtney Love

• In late March, Courtney Love became the first tweeter to be sued for libel over inflammatory tweets about a fashion designer who dared to bill the singer for $4,000 in custom-made clothing.

• The same month, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had to pony up $25,000 after the National Basketball Association fined him for tweets about referees during the team’s 103-101 loss to Denver. But Cuban didn’t stop there, crowing later to his Twitter followers: “can’t say no one makes money from twitter now. the nba does.”

• A job candidate lost out on a position this year and became known widely in cyberspace as “Cisco Fatty” after this tweet was seen by a Cisco employee: “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.”

A tempting technology
Do you suppose any of those folks felt like twits after they became hot topics? Like any social-networking tool (Facebook, MySpace), Twitter is posing ticklish problems for users as well as their employers.

And if Twitter’s exponential growth continues — one report says 900 percent in the past year — we could see more of these problems. Estimates of Twitter’s users range from 3 million to 25 million.

Tamara Olsen
Tamara Olsen

“You can type 140 characters on Twitter before your brain is engaged enough to think about what you’re saying, and if there’s any connection between that communication and the workplace, there can be a legal impact,” says employment law expert Tamara Olsen, a principal and managing officer at Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis. “Sometimes people forget to ask themselves: ‘Is this message true? Is it wise? Does it reflect well on me and does it reflect well on my employer?’ If the answer to any of those questions is no, there can be a negative effect on the individual and employer and it can create a legal liability.”

On the other hand, Olsen says, “one of the great advantages of these kinds of technology is you can get a message to hundreds of people in a heartbeat.” That advantage is especially tempting to businesses wanting to spread the word about their services and to pols who want to distribute their thoughts quickly to social-media-savvy constituents, pals and pundits. Think about all those lawmakers who tweeted and texted their reactions to President Obama’s first address to Congress.

Still, using the tool can prove embarrassing. State legislator Gardner admitted as much last Tuesday at the House Ethics Committee hearing on the complaint against him. (Audio of the hearing is available here.)

Rep. Paul Gardner
Rep. Paul Gardner

The last time a House Ethics Committee met was in 2003, when a complaint charged that then-Rep. Arlon Linder’s comments — that gays may not have been persecuted during the Holocaust — violated “accepted norms of House behavior.” Linder also was the subject of a 2000 complaint for similar comments. In both cases, the committee did not find probable cause for a violation.

This year, a new committee looked at a complaint filed by Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, and Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, about Gardner’s tweets on May 8:

“Emmer seems to belittle his female colleagues (rage, sarcasm) on the floor more than the men? Great face to the GOP?”

“Why is Buesgens wearing sunglasses? Black eye?”

A troubling introduction to Twitter  
A teed-off Emmer told the Ethics Committee that he and Buesgens weren’t familiar with Twitter until they were shown Gardner’s comments while they were on the House floor. Indeed, their complaint (PDF) twists Twitter’s lexicon a bit by describing Gardner’s tweeting as “twitting.”

Rep. Tom Emmer
Rep. Tom Emmer

Emmer, who some expect to run for governor next year, said he is worried about the potential impact on his 14-year-old daughter who, like many of today’s teens, is tech-savvier than her parents and might run across the tweet. He also told the committee he never has received any complaints from female lawmakers about his style.

“I do get aggressive [during a debate], but it’s no different than cross-examination in a trial setting,” the lawyer said, characterizing such exchanges as “healthy, spirited debate.” After the back-and-forth grilling, he said, adversaries typically shake hands and inquire about each other’s families.

In one lighthearted moment during the otherwise somber hearing, Buesgens said he wore sunglasses in House chambers because he sits where “four lights shine directly in my face. … Plus, I think it gives me a more menacing look or persona.”

“I said he looked like he belonged on ‘Mod Squad,’ ” said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg R-Lakeville, a member of the Ethics Committee.

In a May 11 apology to Emmer and Buesgens, Gardner says he fired off his tweets to a couple dozen followers in the heat of the budget debate. An excerpt from his apology: “We often get emotional during important debate, and tempers can flare, but that can be no excuse.”

Rep. Mark Buesgens
Rep. Mark Buesgens

A reminder from House leadership
The incident prompted House leadership to send on May 14 a four-page reminder to all members and staff about the House’s “E-mail, Internet, Computer and Communications Technology Use Policy.” Here’s a section:

“In using e-mail, Internet access, and other communications technology, members and employees should use good judgment in both the type of message created and in the tone and content of message. E-mail messages and Internet postings should be able to withstand public scrutiny without embarrassment to the House, the Legislature, or their employees if messages are forwarded beyond the intended recipients or otherwise made public.”

Though Gardner has canceled his Twitter account and sent apologies to the House membership, the Ethics Committee  recommended that he “make an oral apology to the House at the earliest possible date.”

“As Rep. Gardner acknowledged…, he did not exercise sound judgment by making statements about his colleagues that were not respectful and courteous and he did not show respect to the House of Representatives,” according to the committee’s statement.
 
Gardner did not return MinnPost’s phone call seeking comment.
 
Potential pitfalls for politicians
With this latest Twitter-versy, MinnPost asked the man behind Minnesota’s nonpartisan Smart Politics blog if it’s really all that smart for politicians to communicate on the fly what they’re doing and thinking.

“It’s going to take more than this incident to stop the momentum the site (Twitter) has going for it,” said Smart Politics’ Eric Ostermeier, a research associate for the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Consider that U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., now has “700,000 followers!!” according to a tweet sent last week.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher

So far, two-dozen state politicians and candidates, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, are using Twitter, according to a Wiki list titled “Minnesota Politics and Government on Twitter.” The list, initiated by St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger, includes journalists who are tweeting about state government and politics.

And it’s those journalists’ short reports Gardner wanted to follow when he set up his Twitter account, he said at the hearing.

Ostermeier finds it “interesting” that Gardner got tripped up by Twitter, given he was one of the state’s first legislators to start a blog. “He is something of a proponent of letting the sun shine in on the legislative process and activities. … He was posting about who he met with … and it was way more detailed than necessary. But he’s a very smart man who won an extremely close election in 2006, and this was his hook.”

Even so, Gardner’s tweets about Emmer and Buesgens “went a little too far,” said Ostermeier, whose own tweets typically consist of headlines about his posts and links.

“In the arena of politics, it’s (Twitter) the online equivalent of micing up a basketball coach or a football coach or putting a camera in the helmets of football players … and that’s with a league asking,” he said. “Here, it’s completely voluntary, and legislators are doing it for their own strategic or personal reasons or they just enjoy doing it.”

What’s Ostermeier’s advice to politicians on Twitter?

“I blush at giving advice but when you think about it, if they’re giving a statement to audiences at a campaign rally they know they’re speaking to a group and they can get in trouble. Or if they’re speaking to a journalist, they know they better watch what they say. … That lack of direct connection, not having face-to-face contact, poses the risk of letting their guard down, and that’s what happened here” with Gardner.

Some tweets from politicians, says Ostermeier, are “completely innocent” with “I’ve got to pick up the kid and I’m having this for supper.” Those types of tweets “can be endearing or annoying … that’s the danger of it. It’s easy for what’s in your head to be quickly transcribed onto the tweet and not have time to think about the consequences because you don’t have that face-to-face contact.”

Weighing the risks in the workplace
In private life and the workplace, those who use social networking, instant messaging and email need to be mindful of protecting not only their reputations but also their employers’ because of liability issues, says Olsen, the lawyer.

“Email communication forms a part of the evidence in almost every sexual harassment case now and there are whole industries based on finding deleted emails in order that they can be produced as evidence in harassment cases,” she said.

Though this reporter knows she wrote stories in the early part of the 21st century about the perils of emails, she can’t help but ask Olsen why users continue to make the same blunders across several electronic platforms.

“Your point is a good one,” she says. Then she offers an example Gray Plant Mooty uses in training employers and employees:

“We say we know that really intelligent executives would never photocopy an off-color cartoon from a Playboy magazine and walk up and down the hall and put it on everyone’s desk,” she said. “The executives would have time for their brains to engage and think, ‘This is not a good idea.’ But when they get it in email and they laugh, in a matter of five seconds they can forward it to everyone in the company. And once it’s done, they just can’t take it back. While the quickness of the communication is one of the most wonderful things about the technology, in large part that’s why it’s problematic.”

Facebook and MySpace users also need to consider the implications of posting photos from a party, she said, because, like it or not, people’s private lives often intersect with their work lives.

“If you put pictures up of your party,” she says, “do you want your colleagues to see that? Is there a chance they will show them to your boss, and is there a chance the boss is going to think those photographs are not really consistent with the behavior of a person they want to promote? … It’s very common for employers to do searches on the Internet before they do hires … and as long as they’re not taking the information and using it to discriminate in some way, it’s perfectly legal for them to take that into account in hiring decisions.”

Employers also worry that employees will share company secrets in a blog or in other electronic communication. “People come to think of their blog as their own private journal, where they can say what’s in their heart,” she said. “In truth, what you say in a blog might just as well be put on a billboard on (Interstate) 94-West in terms of other people’s ability to see it … and that can put an employer at risk.”

Like many employers, Gray Plant Mooty is in the process of coming up with a workplace policy on Twitter and social networking. The trick for any skittish employer is to avoid going overboard, she says.

“I hear employers sometimes say these technologies are dangerous and employees need to stop using them,” she said. “I think that’s a foolish way to go about this. … The telephone is dangerous, too, but you don’t stop people from using it. I really think there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. These technologies are out there, and for businesses that are smart about using them they will be extremely valuable. It’s a matter of getting out on the front end and figuring out how.”

Casey Selix, a news editor and staff writer for MinnPost, has tweeted about arts news on Arts Arena‘s Twitter account. She also has found that Arts Arena’s followers can be good sources of news tips. Selix can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com.

Correction: The original version of this story said the last time an ethics complaint was filed was in 2000. The last time was in 2003, but the subject of the complaint was the same as in 2000. The story has been updated with the correct information.  

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 06/08/2009 - 06:52 am.

    With the way Twitter is structured, anyone tweeting in the open should assume that EVERYONE (boss, spouse, political opponent, competitors, press, etc.) is going to see it. When I send any e-mail from work, I assume it is being read by parties other than just the recipient(s).

    Rep. Gardner’s misfortunes reinforce the concept of thinking before hitting that “Update” icon or the even more onerous “Reply All” in your e-mail program.

  2. Submitted by Henry Wolff on 06/08/2009 - 09:00 am.

    I like Emmer, but he has got to develop a little thicker skin. I thought Republicans were the parties opposed to speech codes designed to protect people’s “feelings”?

  3. Submitted by Greg Schlichter on 06/08/2009 - 09:29 am.

    The thing bullies hate worse than anything is being called out on it. That’s all Gardner did with his rather mild tweet. It’s not like he talked about their mammas. Emmers and Buesgens ought to thank the Shoreview legislator for his constructive criticism; their boorish behavior is something they can recognize and modify afterall. C’mon “tough-guys,” thicken up your sweaty skin for goodness sakes!

  4. Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 06/08/2009 - 09:37 am.

    My tech-savvy son realized early on that “the Internet is forever.” And that anything sent/posted is pretty much available to anyone. Yet I still deal with companies who ask for sensitive information (like SSNs) by email, or who confirm passwords in emails that include the password.

  5. Submitted by Howard Miller on 06/08/2009 - 02:23 pm.

    Amazing how free speech seems to upset people so much.

    We’re still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re still losing hundreds of thousands of jobs monthly, housing prices are falling while foreclosures are rising ….

    … and we’re all a twitter about people sending text messages that hurt other people’s feelings or financial standing.

    One has to wonder if we’re not at risk in the United States of trivializing ourselves to death, drowning in the small stuff while the larger issues flounder dangerously without end, without proper resolution

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