Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is it ever appropriate to call your opponent a scum-sucking pig?

I blogged a matter of days ago about people getting into trouble for inappropriate tweets. It was based on observations of Twitter usage. It may be the people I follow, but it has become increasingly partisan and polarised in recent weeks and there has been a lot of attack, rebuttal and counter attack. Sensible, objective voices become marginalised and the medium loses its power as a way of engaging some people in more rational political discourse - noted by Andrew Chadwick on Twitter yesterday - a shame. What is the result, that Twitter scandals become magnified and part of what is now bound to be one of the most negative campaigns with no clear separation between what is party generated and what is independent.

That is a different story, and I wanted to highlight two episodes to explore how Twitter seems to be used during the election campaign. In the UK, one contribution to the 'I've never voted Tory' hashtag was under the name of David Wright MP (Labour obviously) and included the elegant argument "because you can put lipstick on a scum-sucking pig, but it’s still a scum-sucking pig". David (pictured right) claims his feed was hacked, which may well be the case, for all we know it could have been hacked deliberately to cause trouble for him or the Labour party - all things after all are possible. The fact that follow-up tweets which were not later deleted included 'must've hit a nerve" suggests claims of hacking are questionable however. The story then escalated and Eric Pickles waded in to demand an apology, this was published on Iain Dale's blog and also picked up by the media. Did he, didn't he, does it matter, who cares; all interesting questions. What it is though is symptomatic of the political discourse on Twitter, which anyone can be drawn into, but once drawn in it becomes difficult to retract (impossible to edit) a tweet and then you have to find some form of excuse.

Similar rows are bubbling across in the US, in Ohio, where there will be a by-election following the death of Senator John Murtha. Democrat candidate Jennifer Brunner is using a tweet by COAST and organisation supported by her opponent Rob Portman (left), which read "John Murtha dead at 77. Good riddance bad egg" as an indication of his character. Her campaign, which has much broader and substantial criticisms of Portman, includes the line "Ohioans are decent people, and we "get" what people are about by what they do" - perhaps as relevant to the reference to Murtha, his links to COAST, and his opposition to spending and taxes (the campaign covered by COAST) over which political arguments are raging.

Twitter seems to be increasingly used as a campaign tool. But is it a wise tool? Well any tool is only as wise as the user and that in many ways is the problem with Twitter. We can suggest that the use of short phrases that can be broadcast to a huge audience is very attractive to anyone running a campaign. But are the short phrases well thought out? One may imagine that the 'I've never voted Tory' hashtag is something viewed only by Labour supporters, no these are monitored very widely. Thus the imagined and actual audiences may be very different. It is ok to produce these simple slogans, but do they actually have broader ramifications when they are as negative as those used (maybe) by Wright or Portman? There was a flurry of excitement when it was revealed that the Conservative Central Office wanted to approve all tweets, not such a silly idea. But, while MPs and PPCs may be controllable, the broader party twitterers cannot. This is where the bulk of negativity comes from and, as Andy Chadwick noted, the outcome will be that there will be a small and highly polarised conversation taking place that replicates the yah-boo of the Westminster floor. It will be of little value to anyone and probably will be nothing more than an afterthought to the election. Sad, for a time I thought it may be the great tool of mobilisation; or will this negativity actually mobilise people?


Jessica said...

Darren, the tweet you attribute to Portman actually came from an anti-tax group called COAST. The Portman camapaign has said the comments about Rep. Murtha were inappropriate.

Darren G Lilleker said...

If that is true my apologies to Rob Portman, I was basing my info on an email; thanks Jessica for pointing that out

Darren G Lilleker said...

amended post for posterity
Thanks again

bobboynton said...

Hi: John Murtha was a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. I am not quite sure how that makes a difference in your argument, but you might want to correct his 'location.'