28.07.2012 Politicians, social media & a gaffe of Olympic proportions

Were you one of the millions ‘dual screening’ the Olympic opening ceremony last night? That is, combining your enjoyment of Danny Boyle’s spectacular televisual treat with trawling social media sites to see others’ real-time reactions?

We have already blogged on how this is becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon for big national television events, and last night saw Twitter on fire with a flurry of activity around the #openingceremony hashtag.

Around 10:30pm, proceedings took a turn for the controversial when it was reported that Conservative MP for Cannock and Chase Aidan Burley had posted tweets accusing the opening ceremony of being “leftie”.

To put this in context, just seven months ago he was removed from his post as parliamentary private secretary to Transport Secretary Justine Greening for attending a party where guests dressed up as Nazis and drank toasts to senior figures in the Nazi regime.

While the majority of social media users were heaping praise on Danny Boyle’s £27 million extravaganza (albeit with the odd dig at Trevor Nelson’s, erm, somewhat unique commentary style), Aidan Burley described it on Twitter as

“the most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state!”

 He added: “Welfare tribute next?”

An hour later, when the athletes from the competing countries started their parade, he wrote:

“Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!”

Downing Street has understandably distanced itself from his comments, which were immediately derided by others on Twitter.

Some sample responses from the Twitterverse:

“And that, my friends, is the sound of @AidanBurleyMP goose stepping into political oblivion”@owenjones84

“So, @AidanBurleyMP: non-entity to national disgrace in under 140 characters. First world record of the games?”@cherylmorgan

“Thanks to @AidanBurleyMP for allowing us a peek at the Conservative party’s true colours last night. We can seeeeee youuuuuu.” @JohnAmaechi

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister took to Twitter to declare :

“The opening ceremony has been a great showcase for this country. It’s more proof Britain can deliver.”

As you’d expect that particular tweet had nowhere near the amount of retweets or level of response as Burley’s comments. It’s fair to say Burley’s criticism of the ceremony will have caused some groans and heads-in-hands at No 10 as it was completely at odds with the official party line.

This morning he has been accused of attempting a gold medal in backtracking after tweeting:

“Seems my tweet has been misunderstood. I was talking about the way it was handled in the show, not multiculturalism itself.”

So that’s ok then…

This is just the latest controversy over opinions expressed by politicians on social media. While there are clear opportunities for politicians who use social media well to connect with a wider audience and achieve engagement with voters, there are also downsides.

Nobody knows that better here in Wales than Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Bethan Jenkins.

Although not anywhere in the same stratosphere as Burley’s offensive comments, she recently vowed to take a break from Twitter after describing Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as “naive” for agreeing to meet the Queen, which saw her caught in a media storm.

With almost 4,000 Twitter followers and over 1,800 Facebook friends, Bethan – who at 30 years old is a typical ‘digital native’ – has completely embraced social media. She is an active user who has been cited as an example of how politicians should be using these platforms to communicate with constituents and the wider world.

We asked Bethan why she sees value in using social media. She said:

“I get many messages on Facebook, or even on the chat application from younger people who just would not email me or write to me in a formal way about their issues, so I worry if I wasn’t using social media how many young people would connect with me and other politicians.

“I also find social media valuable for my role; in asking people’s opinions on an issue prior to doing a media interview, for example, or asking for important questions to ask of, say, chief executives of health boards prior to a meeting.

“It’s simply not true to say that young people are not interested in politics. I think a lot of the time communication with young people can be done in the wrong way, or in an un imaginative way, which can turn them off.”

She warns of the dangers of paying lip service to social media, or using it in a way that isn’t completely genuine and transparent;

“Having said this, I think if you are going to use social media as a politician at all, it has to be in a genuine and open way. You have to talk to people, be ready for a debate, and engage fully. People can see through those politicians who only use it to update the site for their press releases that were sent out on general release anyway, or those who have staff to run their sites. Again, this could backfire, and would mean that it would be a waste of time for the politician and the constituents!”

But, as Aidan Burley is experiencing this morning (we wonder if he’s regretting Tim Berners-Lee, who featured in last night’s ceremony, ever inventing the world wide web…) she warned of the downside of using social media as a politician:

“There is a growing trend for other media outlets to simply pluck what you have said from a social network discussion, and print a comment that is totally out of context. This can be quite frustrating, when you are aware that a wider, often constructive discussion was had on a topic, and someone from a media outlet has subsequently knowingly undermined that.

“It is now a place where opposition parties trawl the internet, trying to find some way of catching you out, and finding a story out of nothing, from a comment that has quite often been taken out of context, or in other instances, misinterpreted entirely.

“These are dangers people should be aware of, though when I have had this inflicted upon me, I find that the people on social media that I talk to on a regular basis see my point of view clearly, and are supportive of my right to have an opinion, to try and be as honest as I can, and as genuine as I can. I am someone who is merely trying to represent the people who elected me to work on their behalf.”

What do you think? Is social media making politics more transparent and accessible? Or should politicians be more careful about expressing radical opinions online? Do you communicate with your local councillor, council, AM or MP via social media? Have you had an issue solved as a result? Let us know, we would love to hear from you.