Six Rules for Politicians Using Social Media


This is an updated version of the talk I presented at the the eighth annual Municipal Communication Conference in Toronto, November 2013.


I use social media regularly and frequently. As a politician, that makes me either very brave or very stupid. But I’ve been doing this for the last 30 years, long before I ever got elected. Social media isn’t new to me.*

It may be slicker than it was in 1983, but it’s essentially the same text-based, monologue, just with chrome added. In fact, the tone of the conversation seems to have gone downhill since the 80s.

Back then it was mostly computer geeks like, so we were more of a community. Geek-to- geek wasn’t so adversarial, unless of course, you were arguing the relative merits of the Z80 versus the 6502 processor.

Today people debate about such important issues as Kim Kardashian’s cat, the name of a royal baby, or the recent favourite, Millie Cyrus’s backside.**

Today’s great technological advancement seems to be the consummate ease by which you can attach pictures of kittens or puppies to your posts.

Technology has improved our ability to share those photos with thousands, even millions of people. But it hasn’t made us better communicators.

Some technology actually rewards illiteracy. Twitter. For example, encourages us to cram our language into abbreviations and codes. It turns language into hieroglyphics.

Sure it can help social change. But how much is debated. Everyone points to how the Arab Spring was abetted by Twitter and Facebook. But I suspect a lot of the Arab Spring tweets went like this: “We’re overthrowing the government today. What are you wearing?”

Anthony WeinerSo when anyone in politics or municipal government asks me how to approach social media, I tell them two words:

Anthony Weiner.

I tell them there are six lessons you can learn from Anthony Weiner about social media.

Everyone knows who he is, of course. Weiner single handedly turned sexting from a minor act done by over-heated teens, to front page headline activity.The media were full of the stories about how this US congressman tweeted pictures of his underwear-clad crotch to young women around the country.

It was monumentally stupid and puerile. Weiner had to resign from Congress over the scandal. It hurt his career. And maybe his marriage. But on the grand scheme of things, it was harmless. He wasn’t Edward Snowden or Juilan Assange after all.

It really wasn’t anything more than a lack of good judgment or common sense. We’re all guilty of that. We all screw up now and then. That’s just human nature.

But Weiner was a politician. And politicians get held to a higher standard than, say, your neighbour or your cousin. If they did it, you’d probably just shrug it off. But when a politician or a civil servant is involved, the sky is falling.

At least that’s what the media tells us.

When I was in newspapers, media were the sole gatekeepers of information. We controlled how the public received it. Everyone looked to us. We had standards about what we published, and we were respected for them.

Today, there are tens of thousands of accessible sources online. Traditional media scrambles for your attention. In order to compete with Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, they sensationalize just about everything.

But back to Anthony Weiner. His biggest mistake wasn’t his tweets. Or his sexting. His biggest mistake is something millions of people do online every day. They’re doing it right now. I’ve done it many times. And I’d bet everyone reading this post has done it, too.

He treated the internet like it was his private space.

Lesson one: the internet isn’t yours.

Anothy Weiner

It isn’t anyone’s private space. It’s easy to think that it is, of course.

After all, it’s our computer in our home on our internet connection. We get up out of our bed and sign in on our computer, we sit around in our jammies or underwear, drinking our coffee, our hair a mess, unshaven, and we post on our Facebook page, or tweet on our Twitter account.

We tell people on our internet what cute things the kids said, what the cat caught, what we had for breakfast, what’s wrong with the dishwasher. We gripe about our jobs, our bosses, our coworkers. We share information about our intimate, personal lives, about our most deeply held beliefs, about our families, our homes, our vacations, our pets.

We post that we’re going on vacation and the house will be empty for the next two weeks. How smart is that?

We act as if we’re just hanging around the kitchen table with friends and family. We post pictures of ourselves. They’re called selfies. The word of the year: selfie.

Selfies in our underwear, selfies stuffing our faces with pasta. Selfies getting drunk, sleeping at our desks, smoking dope, playing golf or fishing on the day we called in sick. We live in a society that seems increasingly hedonistic and decreasingly concerned about privacy and confidentiality.

And then we seem surprised when we get caught.

There’s a historical precedent for this. In his book Civility, Stephen Carter blames the start of the collapse of civil debate with the arrival of the automobile. Before the car, Carter argues, people had to learn the rules of behaviour in groups, because most people travelled in groups on public transit, most people congregated in groups for social occasions, most people associated in groups.

Civility and social interaction were important tools for avoiding conflict.

People engaged each other intimately. When you travelled to another city by carriage or even train, it might take several days in the company of strangers. You needed rules of engagement. You needed to be able to react not only to your co-travellers’ chit chat, but to their belches and farts.

When people started buying automobiles, they shut themselves off from that social interaction. They travelled in private. And they started treating the road like it was their own personal property. It was their car, their road and their rules.

We’re doing the same online. We’re in n a bubble. We have no intimate social interaction. We use a sterile, impersonal interface. We never have to smell anyone else’s farts.

That may seem like a bonus, but in turn we have lost our ability to deal with difficult social situations, the sort Jane Austen or Charles Dickens would have understood and dealt with. We’re lulled into complacency because we never see how others react to our posts or our selfies.

Facebook calls our contacts “friends.” Twitter calls them “followers.” It’s got that nice, cozy feeling, like we’re extras on the set of Cheers surrounded by people who know and respect us. People who share our values, our ideals, our hopes and our dreams. They follow us, so we must be leaders. It makes us feel important.

Because they’re our “friends” we trust them and we engage with them.

Yet survey after survey tells us most of these people in our online circle are at best acquaintances. They’re not friends in the traditional sense of the definition. Most are strangers. Some are even our enemies.

We’re not conversing with people on Facebook or Twitter, any more than a bumper sticker is a political debate.

It’s an illusion we foster because deep down, humans have a need to communicate. We want to be liked. We want our beliefs to be reinforced. We are born to communicate, so we can’t help ourselves. When we think we’re among friends, we let our hair down. We share our secrets with them.

Would stand in front of a football stadium full of strangers in your underwear and ramble on like we do on Facebook? Would we hold up pictures of kittens in front of this audience? I doubt it. They’re clearly not our friends: they’re just an audience. An audience of strangers. Online we’re with friends, right?

That’s part of the illusion.

Anthony Weiner got sucked into the illusion. It’s an illusion we all subscribe to because of our basic human needs to bond and to trust. But the intimacy we think we’re getting isn’t real.

The internet isn’t yours. It’s not private, it’s not a comfy little circle of close friends. It’s not the set of Cheers. The internet an open, densely-populated public space full of strangers. Some of whom are angry, suspicious and volatile strangers.

Behave in it like you would on a live stage in front of a big audience. A really big audience.

Anthony Wiener’s indiscretions were dredged up and paraded in public when he ran for mayor of New York City. They took the spotlight over the issues he tried to raise. His crotch photos will still be found somewhere online years after he’s retired and been forgotten. His grandkids, if he has any, will be teased by them.

Lesson two : People may forgive and forget. The internet doesn’t.

Anothy Weiner

It has the memory of the proverbial elephant.

A mean spirited, elephant which drinks Red Bull and eats cold pizza until 3 a.m. while it types angry comments on the Sun or the CBC’s news stories.

And it remembers everything.

If your spouse or one of your co-workers is cranky one day and says something stupid, or inappropriate, you probably shrug it off. You accept that he or she is having a bad day. We all have them.

But online, these things can fester. Online they stay around a long time, and they snowball, dragging in others, often strangers, who comment and keep a thread alive. They get dredged up from the past like one of Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghosts.

Everything comment, every tweet, every Facebook post is being recorded. The Internet Wayback machine archives page snapshots and has records going back into the late 1990s. Nothing ever gets forgotten or lost online.

Someone out there has archived it, grabbed a screen shot, printed or shared it. Those somebodies include dozens of alphabet soup government agencies, ratepayers’ groups, political parties, your opponents, your neighbours, internet archive sites, bloggers, media and anyone who might have a grudge.

Every stupid thing you post will live on, like Dorian Grey, never aging.

Every photo of yourself drinking tequila from the bottle, every wisecrack about your boss, every drunken comment you made will haunt you. That youthful moment when you mooned for the camera and posted it online? It’s out there.

Savvy employers now do online searches of candidates, looking to see what indiscretions they’ve posted on social media.

If this makes you a little paranoid, good. It should.

Every notion you grew up with about confidentiality and privacy is being shredded by the internet.

Facebook harvests data about its users like a giant trawler harvests everything in the ocean in its wake. And it’s not the only one doing it. Big data is big business.

Lesson three: not everyone thinks you’re great, even though you do.

Anothy Weiner

If you’re in politics, a lot of people already think you’re a fool, you’re corrupt, demonic, dishonest, self-serving and out of touch. And that was before you started posting on Facebook. Now they think they have the proof.

Not only will they misconstrue what you say, they will bend it, twist it and drag it out of context. Then they will share whatever Frankenstein mess they conjure from what you said with all their friends and supporters so they can all get it wrong together.

Robert Levine, in his book The Power of Persuasion tells a joke about a mother who bought her son two shirts for his birthday. The son goes into the bedroom to change and comes out wearing one. The mother looks at him and asks, “What? You didn’t like the other one?”

No matter what you answer, no matter which shirt you choose, someone won’t like it. Someone will find fault, someone will prefer the other answer. Or any other answer.

Finnish researcher Osma Wiio postulated seven rules of communication. They’re tongue-in-cheek, but like Murphy’s Law they have a core of truth. Rule two says,

If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in the way that maximizes the damage.

Say a politician votes against a new hockey rink because it will raise taxes. Someone will scream she’s against children or sports. If she votes for it, others will scream she’s against seniors and low-income people. She can’t win with everyone.

Sixty percent of any municipal population has a pet. More than half of your residents have one or more dogs. Dog owners want an off leash park, so your council approves one. Other people will scream you’re putting pets above children because you didn’t spend the money on a child-related project.

Cat owners will bitch you’re giving preference to one pet over another. Some dog owners will be unhappy you didn’t include a fountain and a pool. Others won’t like the location and want on in their neighbourhood instead.

And the conspiracy theorists will file freedom of information requests to find out who would benefit from the construction.

Lesson four: you’re always wrong to someone.

Anothy Weiner

It doesn’t matter which shirt you choose, it will always be the wrong one for some people. And thanks to social media, they have a platform to criticize your choice.

Technology has empowered everyone to be able to comment. And we do.

It’s our internet after all, so we’re entitled to comment on everything. We comment immediately, automatically, without hesitation, without pausing to consider the impact or effect of our words. Who cares if it hurts someone? They’re trespassing on our internet, after all. Who cares if it’s wrong, insensitive, or offensive? It’s our internet, we’re entitled to say what we please.

Doesn’t matter if we actually understand the issues, or the politics or the science in the story, either. We not only have the right, we have the responsibility to say something, no matter how banal, and to say it right now.

Technology’s empowerment is another illusion. We mistakenly associate access with ability.

We believe that having the right to comment is the same as actually contributing to the conversation in a meaningful way. That what we have to say must be important, valuable and our opinion is wanted. Simply because we can comment, we assume that comment has value. It’s not just noise.

And, of course, everyone else online, on our internet, is wrong, stupid, ignorant and cranky.

Technology may make communication worse. It can make it less expressive. Concepts like irony, and the subtleties of rhetorical debate are lost. A lot of humour gets misunderstood. This dumbing down, this simplification can lead to great misunderstanding and conflict.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron was ending tweets with LOL. His recipients thought he was making fun of them because they read it as “laughing out loud.” Cameron thought it meant “lots of love.” Which might have spawned a wholly different misunderstanding among other recipients.

Most of us aren’t great writers. We’re not Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky or Hemingway. We can’t express ourselves that elegantly. Most of us communicate in writing clumsily, obscurely or in a pedestrian manner. Social media hasn’t improved that. But we assume we’re being clear and coherent.

In my first year on council, I still had that media cynicism and cockiness. So I replied to another councillor’s email with a sarcastic comment, but I added a little smiley at the end to show I was just being funny.

Instead, he responded with a flaming attack, accusing me of being insensitive, arrogant, ignorant and a few other adjectives. Of course, he sent his reply to every department head, staff person and member of council, to make sure they all knew my flaws.

Turned out he didn’t know what an emoticon was, had never seen one. He thought the little winky face was just a mistake, me pressing keys by accident. A typo. I had to educate him, but the damage was done.

The mistake was mine: I assumed he understood the mechanics. I assumed he knew that we had developed other ways to express emotions because the medium was limited. I assumed he was as computer literate as I was and that he understood smileys.

I was wrong.

And every day, every time we tweet or post on social media, we make the same assumption: that the people reading it understand what we’re trying to say, what we mean, and they can tell whether it’s serious, joking, rhetorical or relevant.

And that when they inevitably don’t get it, the fault is theirs, not ours.

Lesson five: Not everyone gets the message. Or the joke.

Anothy Weiner

What that incident taught me is not simply that some people don’t pay attention to technological trends, but that artificial substitutes for emotion are not sufficient. A smiley can’t replace a wink, can’t replace a nudge or a chuckle.

Assuming others get the joke or the message is the wrong way to engage people on social media.

Does the presence of a smiley at the end of a negative tweet or comment positively affect your emotional response to that statement? Not right away. Because it occurs at the end, you already had an emotional reaction to the content before you saw the smiley. If the sender had spoken to you in a tone of voice that conveys irony or humour, you would have understood the context immediately.

We all think we’re communicating well – it’s just that the other person doesn’t get it. It’s not our fault – it’s theirs.

Professor Dalton Kehoe of York University says one of the main blocks to effective communication is that everyone else is a dummy. From our perspective, anyway.

We all think we’re the smartest people in the room and any misinterpretation in communication is the other person’s fault. When someone responds in a negative or challenging manner, we automatically assume they’re idiots. That they didn’t understand us. That they got our very clear message wrong. It’s not our fault. We did everything right. We communicated clearly.

So they must be idiots. And we tell them so. And that leads to conflict and confrontation.

Lesson six: there are no shared or accepted rules of engagement online. It’s a mosh pit.

Anothy Weiner

During the Cold War, the Soviets used female spies to entice Western male diplomats into illicit sex so they could blackmail them. It was called a honey trap. Today they hardly need to do that because so many people expose themselves willingly, eagerly online.

Social media is today’s honey trap.

Because we don’t have a consensus for rules of engagement online, we either fall back on individual lessons learned before the internet, or struggle to develop new rules for ourselves. That’s not going so well. The other people on our internet aren’t playing by our rules.

Today anyone can join the conversation, often in real time. In theory that’s a good thing. Democracy, citizen engagement and all that. In practice it sucks.

Technology is supposed to empower people to contribute, to become part of the discussion. In reality, it makes everyone feel entitled, even compelled to comment. Doesn’t matter if you know what the subject is, if you can spell properly or string six words into a coherent sentence. We’re all entitled.

Technology is the great equalizer, too. There is no royalty on Facebook. Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories for posters that identify them as more relevant or more important.

If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.

All messages have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any poster as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. We’re all equally important.

Technology grants that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It doesn’t even have to be true: everything has value! My post about what I ate for breakfast carries the same weight as your post on the gas attacks in Syria or yours on the threat of global warming. Which matters the most? None: there are no rules here.

Current technology is great for posting pictures of kittens and puppies, but it runs counter to just about everything we know makes up human communication.

We evolved for millions of years to communicate face to face. The lift of an eyebrow, the little shrug, the gesture, the dilating pupils, the flaring nostrils, the furrowed brow, the eye contact, the tone of voice. Odours, pheromones, the colour of your clothes and the simple biology of the sexes all play into human communications. Suddenly – sudden from a historical perspective at least – we can talk to anyone on the planet. Engage anyone directly. To hell with the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, today it’s the six degrees of you and me.

And how do we reach out? How do we engage one another in this Brave New World?

Through plain text. It’s our primary means of communication on social media.

Twitter has a limitation of 140 characters and no formatting allowed. It’s like we all went back to scratching characters on clay tablets with pointed sticks.The possibility of mistaken meaning within this limited format is tremendous. Yet people love it.

Psychologist Dr. John Gottman says all communication is a bid for an emotional connection, and to be effective needs an emotional response. What emotional connection do you get from posts on social media? Aside from anger?

Psychology Today defines Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, as “the ability to understand, manage, and effectively express one’s own feelings, as well as engage and navigate successfully with those of others.” It also says people with high EQ are “more able to perceive and interpret others’ emotional, physical, and verbal expressions. They also know how to communicate effectively to clarify intentions.”

Can we do this through typing alone? No. But don’t blame the typist.

Typography has evolved since Gutenberg to allow us to express ourselves in writing with great subtlety. Type designers have been working for over 500 years to craft typefaces that express emotion and enhance legibility and readability.

Twitter and Facebook strip it all from us and puts us back in the typographical Stone Age.

How do you emphasize a word or phrase in Twitter or Facebook? Surround it with asterisks? Put it in uppercase? Not many choices. None of which everyone agrees on or uses consistently for the same effect. And whichever you choose, someone will misinterpret.

We don’t have effective communication on social media because of both the technology and because we assume the other person is playing by our rules. Rules which we never get around to telling the others. And we never agree to play by their rules, if they even share them with us.

There’s no simple, effective or non-adversarial way to engage people on most social media because there’s no way to be sure anyone else understands your intentions or context. We’re confounded by the lack of emotionally expressive tools, we’re confounded by the ineffectiveness of the medium, we’re confounded by the likelihood that whatever we say will be misinterpreted, deliberately or not.

We’re also confounded by the reality that many people online who engage in any discussion do not fully understand the issues, the science, the data, the process or the legalities. That’s as true in politics as in any other area. But it doesn’t stop them from adding their comment to the stream.

So the question is: can we have an intelligent, civil debate on social media? Can we engage our stakeholders, ratepayers and residents in a calm, mature discussion about issues through these popular tools?

And the answer is no. We’re still working out the rules. Each one of us, one at a time.

It’s like the car: there will be always be polite drivers and idiots on the road together. And no amount of signs or enforcement will stop someone from having a fit of road rage over a perceived slight.

Maybe in a few years we’ll have better rules for online engagement.

The technology is improving, too. With full streaming video we can at least see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. When broadband expands to the point where streaming video is so commonplace, we’ll take it for granted. Until then, we’re saddled with the limitations of text-based exchanges.***

Some people won’t use video because they prefer anonymity. Anonymity – and much of social media still permits anonymity – has been called “a license to be vicious.”

You surely know Godwin’s Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. It isn’t long in any online comment stream before politicians and staff are being accused of being dictators, fascists, little Hitlers. And that’s not the worst you will be called.

Some people feel they can make these comments because it’s their internet, their private space. And because they think they’re anonymous. No one can identify them, no one can report them to the principle for bad behaviour.

Technology easily disconnects us from the reality of communication. That disconnection makes it seem like a fantasy world to some. They’re not addressing real people, just digital characters from World of Warcraft. They can hack and slash with impunity because they don’t see their targets as real people. That’s a serious disconnect from social reality.

So, do politicians engage on social media or ignore it? There are risks. Many of them. There are also rewards. Fewer, but they’re real too.

I say engage, carefully, and with the knowledge and understanding of both its limitations and the likelihood that whatever you say will be misinterpreted.

The more you engage, the more you post or blog, the more likely you are to become a target of your opponents. You have to be circumspect in what you say and comment on to avoid this. Sometimes it’s walking on eggshells.

Gord Hume, writing in his book, Take Back Our Cities wrote that, “Explosive internet columns, blogs, and opinion pieces that do not seem to be overly-burdened with concerns about facts or accuracy are now being added to the traditional media mix, and have further aroused this toxic brew.”

Toxic brew. He’s right… We know that web culture is schizophrenic. It’s simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian. But it’s not always an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. Sometimes the elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a formidable clique of bullies and malcontents. An elite of the lowest common denominator.

We’ve all encountered these people. They’re the new bullies, the trolls, the people with a permanent hate-on. Social media is their bully-pulpit. They feel they can misbehave online, loudly and angrily,because it’s their internet. You’re the trespasser. And they’re always right. Besides, many are anonymous. You can’t strike back because they’re hiding.

Good luck trying to be calm, rational and objective when these people try to draw you into their angry little world. What can you do?

Don’t engage them. Especially do not engage when they’re anonymous or in a group. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

If politicians want to take the safe route, keep your online persona impersonal, factual, and don’t engage people in argument or mudslinging. Post information, municipal events, neutral content, good news. Don’t post anything people can attack. Post pictures of municipal activities and facilities. Just not kittens and puppies.

Don’t get into an argument: be calm and polite. If you’re attacked on issues or activities, called names or insulted, either ignore it, or post a rational, factual response. However: do it on your own Facebook page or blog, not on theirs. Don’t engage the enemy on their own territory. That’s basic Sun Tzu. On your own page, you can control the responses, edit comments and ban or block posters.

You have the right to block, ban, unfriend or just ignore anyone who gets abusive. No one has the right to bully anyone, and no one has to passively accept being bullied. You didn’t get elected to be anyone’s whipping boy. That’s not democracy or engagement: it’s self-abuse. Protect yourself.

I know it’s hard not to shout back. It’s hard not to defend yourself and it’s hard to spit back at the bullies. It’s hard not to argue with someone who’s trespassing on your internet.
But staying impersonal and calm, and taking a break to ponder before you respond will keep you out of the quicksand most of the time.

Of course, you can always do or say anything you want, respond in any way you want and get into the mosh pit with all the trolls. Nothing but common sense to stop you. You and Anthony Weiner can swap war stories when you’re done. But you won’t win.

Let me conclude with a quote from Bill Keller, who wrote on the New York Times:

Social media rewards partisanship. It is the nature of the medium that like-minded people talk to one another and reinforce one another. It is easy to dismiss any aliens who challenge your prejudices. Unquestioned prejudices shrivel into slogans and labels.

He added that,

Immediacy encourages snap judgments, and once you have voiced your judgment to the wide world it is more difficult to retreat from it.

So go ahead and engage, just keep the six lessons in front of you while you do so.
Weiner cartoon


* Yes: 30 years. I ran a bulletin board system – a BBS – on an Atari 800 in 1983. Through the 80s, I was sysop on Compuserve and Delphi, the precursors to the internet. I have been creating websites since 1995. I’ve managed an online forum since 2003. And I’ve been blogging since 2005.

** Overall the technology has not improved the texture of most debates, but rather added to the noise. And if anything, the quality of the debate has eroded since I started.

*** Maybe we’ll even see text formatting on Facebook and Twitter in the future.

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  1. Pingback: Social media and social dialogue | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary

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