Life & Culture

I resigned because Twitter is making such twits of politicians


Social media has had a profound effect on our politics. From teasing Tumblr blogs, to opinions on the glaringly public platform of Twitter, the social web is making politicians' every thought ever more public, and ever more scrutinised. Just ask Emily Thornberry.

Some politicians successfully use these new mediums to engage with their constituents and the electorate more broadly. Stella Creasey, Julian Huppert and Michael Fabricant come immediately to mind.

Other politicians haven't done such a good job. The Lib Dem MP David Ward has repeatedly posted statements on Twitter that go far beyond a critique of Israeli policy and became what I, and many readers, would consider antisemitic. It was these repeated comments, and the minimal action taken by the Liberal Democrat party, that led me to resign my party membership last week. I didn't want to remain in an organisation where it felt like I was tolerating antisemitism. It no longer felt comfortable to be a Jew and a Liberal Democrat.

In pre-social media days, Ward's unpleasant views would probably never have been known to many more people than the Bradford constituents with whom he chose to share them. Now they are posted online for all to see, and we can all make a judgment on him, and his party, accordingly.

That transparency is one of the major benefits of this hyper-connected world. We can question politicians publicly, and perhaps engage those who have previously ignored the rather impenetrable world of Westminster.

The social web is not just a sideline to life, it's an integral part of it

It's not only politics where social media is bringing these benefits. We see it in our own community, too. The Chief Rabbi regularly posts on Twitter, giving updates about his activities. It's highly admirable, and helps bring the office closer to the community.

The IDF also uses social media effectively, bringing its perspective, and some balance, to discussion of conflict in the Middle East. Would we have had such a clear understanding of the Hamas tunnels aimed to capture and kill Israelis without YouTube videos and pictures posted online by the IDF this summer? I doubt it. The downside to all this is the unthinking posts, distributed to millions without people realising the consequences. I'm sure when Emily Thornberry tweeted her image from Rochester, she never would have believed it would cost her her job in the Shadow Cabinet hours later.

New power inevitably brings new responsibility. Although I see little point in causing offence, people should be allowed to do so in a free society. However, Ward continues to post comments that go beyond that, verging into dangerous racism. He fails to respect the power of the platform he is using.

The kind of hatred stirred up by his misguided moral equivalence online, and the failure of his party to take a stand, are the kinds of things that lead to attacks on Jews. Indeed, it's the kind of thing that has led to Jewish MP Luciana Berger being the victim of torrents of disgusting antisemitic Twitter abuse.

As we go hurtling towards May's general election, I doubt Thornberry will be the last politician to lose their job for a misguided tweet, or that Ward will be the last politician to be display some vile views.

I've worked with various political candidates to help boost their communication online, and I always begin by emphasising that the social web is now not just a sideline to everyday life and communication, but integral to it. Sharing an opinion in real life without thinking it through rarely ends well, so don't do it online. That's not to encourage online blandness, but rather to encourage every public figure to think first, tweet later.

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