By Cheri Jacobus - 06/02/11 09:48 PM EDT
Twitter. Tweet. The Twittersphere. And now Twittergate. It was inevitable. Anyone could have predicted there would eventually be an “incident.” But it would have been impossible even for the most talented of “Saturday Night Live” writers to have conjured up something so out-of-this-world hilarious. Or disturbing.
When the Twitter phenomenon first burst onto the scene five years ago, it seemed pointless, plus I thought it sounded a little dirty. Turns out I was right on both counts. Because of its accessibility and the casual ease with which anyone could send brief messages out to the world, it also seemed potentially dangerous to the reputations and careers of public figures. I was right about that, too.
But when something is too easy, mistakes are too easily made. Such might be the case with Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and the unfortunate tweet sent to a 21-year-old female college student in Washington state whom the congressman was inexplicably following on Twitter. It was also inadvertently sent to the rest of the Weiner Twitter world. “It” being a close-up photo of a man’s nether regions clad only in a pair of gray skivvies. Weiner claims his Twitter account was hacked and he will not answer further questions, including those about the identity of the man in the photograph, except to admit he cannot say with “certitude” that it’s not him.
With so many feeling obligated to give moment-by-moment accounts of their private lives on Twitter, there is inherent danger in public people revealing — ahem — a bit too much, either by accident or by not providing themselves or their staffs thoughtful contemplation prior to communicating with the public. We labor over seven rewrites of a press release, but tweet to an even larger audience in just a few spontaneous seconds.
We now know when a journalist completes his morning run, when an elected official hears a song he likes, lost a few pounds, ate a cheeseburger or thinks the county fair was just swell. And is Twitter really an appropriate way to announce one’s candidacy for president of the United States? Just because the Justin Biebers and Kim Kardashians of the world and those who make them the center of their universe are most comfortable with the brief and inane communiqués doesn’t mean serious public figures — be they elected officials or respected journalists — should be tweeting their every thought or move, unless they are reporting from an active war zone or other critical event. Being bored standing in line at Starbucks does not fall into that category.
The rapidly advancing technology of our times has vastly diminished our privacy. One’s picture can be snapped without one’s knowledge, and within seconds be transmitted to millions around the globe. We can be pinpointed innocently walking down a city street from space, and now, with one accidental hit of a wrong button, make any random musing or personal photo public on Twitter. For public officials, Twitter should be reserved for official business, such as announcing a schedule or emergencies. In the wake of Weinergate, any press secretary worth his or her salt should make it a priority to keep the boss off personal Twitter.
The effectiveness of Twitter, or lack thereof, should also be considered. How seriously does the average voter take a Twitter message compared to something more formal and substantive? Does a Twitter message affect how someone (or if someone) votes? Can one change hearts and minds with Twitter?
If nothing else, the recent Weiner Twitter kerfuffle should help usher in a degree of caution, professionalism, careful parameters and respect regarding the manner in which public persons utilize the venue. That “Weiner Twitter kerfuffle” is now in our lexicon should give us reason to pause and re-evaluate. Right after we stifle the giggles.
Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies PR, has managed congressional campaigns, worked on Capitol Hill and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. She appears on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News as a GOP strategist.