I got an award last year. ‘Parliamentary tweeter of the year’. OK, I know, its hardly the Nobel peace prize, but hey, I remain quite proud of it in a business not necessarily known for the dishing out of plaudits. The fact that they chose not to rerun the contest this year means I may hold the title in perpetuity. It’s probably the only political award I will ever get!
Apart from that I’ve had what can only be described as a ‘complicated’ relationship with this the most politically influential of social medias. In my first few months as a user I was splashed all over the front page of the Sun with the oh so flattering headline of ‘What a Twit’. Apparently I had defiled the war dead by tweeting during PMQs when Gordon Brown was reading out the list of those who had fallen in Afghanistan. The fact that I tweeted well after he had finished reading out those names was neither here nor there as political opponents were lined up with their own personal accounts of what a thoroughly vile fallen soldier loathing menace I was. I naturally left Twitter with my tail between my legs, vowing never to return….
I still have extraordinary moments. Just a couple of weeks ago a billionaire author with a history for threatening legal action against SNP MPs jumped on to my timeline. She was there to defend ‘free speech’ after I enquired if a journalist editor was tweeting in a personal capacity or in the name of his employers. This bizarre spat only ended when I received a menacing tweet from a former number 10 spin doctor that actually did seem to threaten me!
I have been called every name imaginable on Twitter (some I concede to have never even heard of before) and I have been accused of practically every type of evil and chicanery. I have been mercilessly lampooned, caricatured and parodied. I have felt threatened, vulnerable and at times concerned for my safety.
So why do you do it then, I hear you ask?
Well, Twitter is a great bustling meeting place for news and ideas. I barely read a newspaper anymore, with the view that if it’s not on Twitter it’s not actually worth reading. I have probably placed more stories on Twitter than through a normal press release and it is great place for sharing a thought, idea or working up a new concept. I also refuse to be intimidated off what is a very stimulating, frenetic and still enjoyable forum.
It is also thoroughly democratic. People may have more followers than others but everyone gets the same airtime. This is also its greatest weakness. With an apparent proximity to public figures a number of people have felt obliged to indulge in the worst sort of personal vitriol assisted by the security of anonymity or digital distance. This is particularly the case with politicians. Because we are in a marmite profession we are going to have as many people who profoundly disagree with us as there are holding on to our every word. The thing is that there is probably no-one who has had their political views changed by a 140 character message on Twitter. Twitter is only here to reinforce those who agree with you.
And there are people who will take great offence at what you put on Twitter (particularly those who are already pre-disposed to disagree with you anyway). Humorous asides will be mercilessly thrown back at you as an example of just how ‘divisive’ you are. Whatever approach you adopt on Twitter as a politician you will never please everybody and there will be a never-ending queue of people just waiting to take offence.
But last week things changed. People started to look at the environment that politicians work in. Concerns were expressed about our safety. For the first time in years I took an assistant with me on my surgeries. Social media was identified as a place considered responsible for helping lower the tone and create an unsavoury culture around our political discourse.
But we can’t let last weeks events change the way we do things on social media and we must have nothing that attempts to curtail the right of people to express their views to politicians directly. I would rather be called any number of expletives than have restrictions placed on social media forums.
However, things do have to change and we politicians must expect to be able to express ourselves on Twitter without being exposed to abuse or threatening behaviour. We have to try and reclaim Twitter as a place where we can have a robust debate where it is alright to disagree without unnecessary abuse. I have adopted a policy of zero tolerance for unnecessary nastiness and as a consequence my timeline is a much better place to visit. Having this control is about the only thing that gives me a degree of comfort and security and I would encourage other political colleagues to look at how they manage what is allowed on to their timelines.
Twitter is an infuriating, noisy, argumentative, messy place but for all of its issues, baggage and faults I still couldn’t imagine political life without it.