Monday, April 19, 2010

When public means public - Australian political party members suspended from social networking sites

The last week has seen several incidents where members of Australian political parties has been suspended from social networking sites and outed in the media for making controversial comments.

Most recently Nick Sowden, a Young Queensland Liberal National Party member, referred to US President Obama as a 'monkey' on Twitter. His tweets were widely discussed online and covered in the media, such as in this Brisbane Times news article, Monkey Business can come back to bite.

Mr Sowden has claimed that his tweets were intended to be a parody of far right US views and that his friends understood that he wasn't racist - although other Twitter users may not. Crikey quoted him as saying "There’s no point sitting behind the veil of political correctness."

It appears that Twitter closed his account after receiving more than 150 complaints about his tweets and the latest reports suggest that Mr Sowden may also be expelled from the Young Queensland Liberal National Party party.

Also in the news was Dave Tollner, a Country Liberal Member of the Northern Territory Parliament. Facebook suspended his Facebook Page for two weeks after he wrote that itinerants were "parasites terrorising innocent citizens".

Covered in the NT News article, Dave booted from Facebook, it is as yet unclear if Mr Tollner's account will be reinstated anytime soon.

The NT News reports that Mr Tollner had said that: "Political correctness has never been my strong point."

Both these cases demonstrate the interesting period we're entering in Australian government.

Both politicians and public servants are beginning to use social media both personally and, most recently, professionally - however few of them have significant experience engaging via online media in this way.

The situation lends itself to a variety of risks such as over or under-moderating comments, reacting to statements in social media channels in disproportionate ways, funny or sarcastic side comments that are taken literally and not understood in context and the differences in personal interpretations of 'political correctness'.

It is very easy to consider social network updates as 'throwaway' lines to friends, even when people recognise intellectually that their comments are public statements and may be viewed and assessed widely by the public and media as well as misunderstood and misrepresented.

This type of issue isn't limited to social networks or online media. There's a long history of radio, television and newspapers reporting candid personal statements recorded when the microphone hasn't been switched off. The US Vice-President's comment to the President during the health care bill signing (where he swore) was one of the most widely publicised recent examples.

With social media this issue can become more complex - with social networks people are 'always on', making it harder for them to keep their guard up all the time.

While there are some guidelines being put in place, there's still little training or support to help people new to these channels to understand how to use them appropriately or effectively - like the media training available to help people respond appropriately in front of a camera and reporter.

There's also limited guidance available on which channels and tools to use for particular purposes, or how to keep public and personal life separate (using the various privacy settings available in many social media tools).

I hope that soon we'll see widespread social media training and coaching for people in the public eye to help them understand that on social networks public means public.

Until then I expect to see many more gaffes from all types of public and semi-public figures - politicians, celebrities, business leaders and from public servants - as they come to grips with the ropes of how to effectively and appropriately communicate via social media.

1 comment:

  1. These are very concerning issues, I was thinking about this issue on the weekend after noticing a RT of @steveGibbonsMP where he states: "Nixon hasn't resigned. Now you F...wits in the media must realise that you don't set or control the agenda. Despite your bullshit!"

    What are Australians view of a politician using terms like 'F...wits'? Are we being to cautious? Do people feel that this makes him more 'real' and 'approachable'? Personally, I like leaders and professional members of society to command respect, especially with their choice of language.

    Lots of food for thought for pending social media guidelines...