It took Barack Obama only 25 characters to shock most of his 2,677, 720 followers to the core. “I have never used Twitter” confessed the leader of the Free World, when pressed on new technology by Chinese students in Shanghai. But, hang on a minute. Wasn’t this the first Social Media Presidency? One of the very first Twitter accounts to be verified? And if Barack says he really is all thumbs, just who is it who is doing all his tweeting?
Australian Federal Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull also got himself into something of a Social Media mess last week, when the Liberal leader’s Twitterer in chief, Tom Tudehope, quit in the wake of a dodgy YouTube video row. Here, Paul Farrell examines the case of @TurnbullMalcolm and wonders whether or not politicians are actually ill-advised to leave Social Media to their advisors.
Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull appeared at ease during the Sydney Media 140 conference in discussion with broadcaster Fran Kelly, leaning comfortably back in his chair. But little did he know that only a few days later, he would looking for a new social media advisor, after his chief on-line strategist, Thomas Tudehope, was revealed to be linked to a version of the popular spoof Hitler “Downfall” video lampooning besieged Liberal politician, Alex Hawke.
The admission that “Tommy Tudehope helps with a lot of it” [Turnbull's tweeting] during the Media140 interview may well have contributed to the startling resignation. But I believe that what these events may reveal is a key danger of the burgeoning use of social media: politicians leaping on the bandwagon and the consequent use of new media tools for more complex political tricks.
What is strange about the entire Tudehope affair is the number of questions which remain unanswered. While the Sydney Morning Herald did report that the email exchange regarding the clip “names a number of other right-wing figures and their private responses to the clip”, they did not publish any of these responses or identify other Liberal members linked to the video.
The newspaper was apparently also content to note that, despite resigning, Mr Tudehope said he “had no involvement in the production or dissemination of the video.”
Mr Turnbull remained unusually quiet for the few days of coverage of the story, and even desisted from Tweeting – although perhaps this was simply because his head ghost Tweeter had just resigned?
One of the key ideas which emerged from the Sydney Media140 event’s Tips for Social Media panel was that users of Twitter and other social media tools needed to be honest. Perhaps, too. the most important thing is to establish a dialogue of trust with your audience. Yet does it inspire trust in audiences when one of Mr Turnbull’s advisors is linked with the Alex Hawke Hitler video? Hardly.
Another curious fact to emerge from the on-stage discussion with Fran Kelly was that Mr Turnbull did not compose all of his own tweets – an admission highlighted by President Obama’s shock admission during his recent China visit that he had “never used Twitter”.
Surely, this raises another series of questions about the use of social media by politicians? Is it still strictly honest to have someone else twittering for Mr Turnbull, when it is the latter’s large, grinning face plastered all over his Twitter background?
Wendy Bacon, the head of the University of Technology Sydney journalism faculty, posted on Twitter that she had: “Tweeted Turnbull questions; had he seen that video? Just yesterday Turnbull chatted about close working relationship with social media staff”.
This is a particularly interesting question, and one to which Mr Turnbull has so far not responded. Mr Turnbull told the Media140 audience that he uses Twitter “as a tool of political communication”, but in the light of his “I use a ghost” confession, the “communication” appears to be some thing of a monologue.
Rather than showing how Twitter and YouTube are being used to communicate with the electorate and encourage debate, the events of last week have exposed how these tools can be used as extra political weapons in an already vast arsenal.
If Mr Turnbull is serious about using social media tools honestly, perhaps he should reply to Wendy Bacon? He might also deign to reply to the questions posed in this post, should it by chance come to his attention, perhaps via Twitter? I am sure many of his 17,000 followers have been asking similar questions and would appreciate his response.
This is, however, not just about Malcolm Turnbull. This is about every politician who decides to broaden his or her appeal, by signing up to Twitter or using other social media devices like YouTube or Facebook. There is no wonder that President Obama’s Twitter admission during an interview with a group of students in Shanghai rocked the blogosphere; his account has over two million followers.
The rules of engagement are changing fundamentally and swiftly in the new media age and, with these changes comes the acutely heightened risk that the new tools will be used to further distort or spin the message. We ought to demand more transparency from politicians, about who really has the log-in and passwords to their myriad online accounts.
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