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Politicians find Twitter can be dangerous to their reputations

The use of social media, it’s often said, is a conversation. And that’s true. But like any conversation, there are certain unspoken ground rules.

Break those rules on social media, especially Twitter, and you may quickly discover that the whole world will remind you of it. Just ask Minnesota politicians Pat Garofalo and Ryan Winkler.

Garofalo, a Republican state representative from Farmington, was blasted recently for a tweet that appeared to paint NBA players as criminals-in-waiting.

Winkler, a Democratic representative from Golden Valley, drew criticism last year when he used the phrase “Uncle Thomas” to describe U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in an angry tweet about the court’s decision in a key voting rights case.

Garofalo and Winkler are hardly the only people, politicians or otherwise, to get in trouble on Twitter. Some others:

  • Mike Parry, a former Republican state senator from Waseca, referred to President Obama as a “power hungry arrogant black man” in a tweet. He later failed to get his party’s nomination for a congressional seat and is no longer in the Senate.
  • CNN Middle East Editor Octavia Nasr was fired after outrage over a tweet in which she praised a Lebanese ayatollah linked to terror bombings that killed hundreds of Americans.
  • British politician Stuart MacLennan was drummed out of the Labour Party after a series of offensive tweets, including one that referred to senior citizens as “coffin dodgers.”
  • Most famously, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York resigned in disgrace from the fallout after tweeting a sexually suggestive photo of himself to a young woman not his wife.

All these people forgot some of the basic rules of Twitter. They’re not really written down anywhere, but common sense will tell you most of them:

  • Don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper. In fact, anything you tweet could be seen by millions of people around the world. Weiner’s junk certainly was.
  • Twitter doesn’t do nuance. When Nasr tweeted her “respect” for deceased Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, she later clarified that she meant he had an enlightened attitude toward human rights. But that wasn’t in her original tweet. Don’t expect to make a subtle point in 140 characters.
  • Stick to topics you know well and care deeply about. You’re more likely to make an uninformed, stupid statement if you jump into the latest cultural trend of the moment in an effort to show how edgy and with-it you are.
  • Avoid controversial topics. If you simply must tweet about a divisive issue, get someone you trust to look at your tweet first.
  • Don’t tweet jokes about tragedies.
  • When all else fails, remember the old maxim: It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Society has spent thousands of years devising rules to control the id. Twitter unleashes it. Until every Twitter account comes with a built-in super-ego, wise users will keep their social conversations more on the level of a Victorian drawing room than a Pig’s Eye saloon.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jim Meffert on 03/24/2014 - 11:09 am.

    A deeper challenge

    During a recent episode of the Daily Show John Stewart and a guest were bemoaning the need to tweet. His guest felt compelled to send out at least one joke a day. The responses he received along with the need to give away a joke, for free, made him wonder if it was worth it. His publicist may have a different opinion about that.

    There is a need by public figures of all sorts to stay relevant. When you think of Twitter, Facebook posts, Linkedin, instagram, etc., constant posting results from this need for perpetual relevance. When I look at tweets and posts, this need transcends public status.

    Couple this with the relative ease and perceived privacy of the tweet or post and there is trouble. An immediate reaction to a comment heard while watching TV in the privacy of ones home may become an unfortunate public statement. The need to stay relevant by saying anything to get something out creates an even more opportunity for ones inner thoughts to become our public persona. We lose the common-sense filters you mention in your article, John.

    Now, layer on top of this the trackers looking for anything to jump on. Think of the public attention given to tragedy of any sort, the misstep of a public figure, natural disaster, etc. Would be no reality TV if everything turned out great? Not likely.

    This dynamic should cause all of us to re-examine our public thoughts and statements. Maybe we should use Tweets and posts to ask questions rather than make statements? More on that another time.

    Thanks for the article John – it is a good reminder.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 03/24/2014 - 11:32 am.

    Social Media

    Also remember for the most part whatever you put on social media will stay there forever, there are no givebacks.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/24/2014 - 04:59 pm.


    No, don’t discourage them from tweeting! If our public officials stop saying and doing stupid things, where will we get our entertainment? How will we feel morally superior to others if we can’t say to our spouses “gosh, I would never do anything THAT stupid!” All the while our spouse is nodding and saying “uh huh, honey…”

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