A couple of weeks back former Government ‘Twitter Tsar’ and front bench Labour MP Kerry McCarthy was once again hitting the headlines over her use of the micro-blogging site.
The Labour foreign affairs spokeswoman described a fellow train passenger as a lager drinking oaf, playing loud techno music while wearing a T-shirt boasting of his sexual prowess.
“Should have killed him when we had the chance before he could breed,” the MP Bristol East tweeted to her 13,000 followers. A swift follow-up saw her remark that the comment was “obviously flippant” and directly related to his boasts of breeding.
She also pointed out that people sharing the carriage were being “very British” by not complaining.
It bears a remarkable similarity to the use of Twitter which arguably cost the Tory Gareth Compton his Erdington council seat after he was suspended by his party.
While listening to a radio debate on human rights in China in which she was taking part, he suggested stoning newspaper columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death.
It was, he agreed, a poor and flippant attempt at humour, mixing human rights and stoning just as McCarthy had referred to the oaf’s claim to be a consummate breeder.
The difference is that context is everything. Mr Compton’s target was a respected Muslim journalist, and McCarthy’s just a Neanderthal on a train.
The instant gratification of being able to directly address an audience without a media filter, albeit in 140 characters or less, and the swift feedback are clearly tempting for politicians.
But the pitfalls of being able to publish, within a few seconds, any thought which enters the head has not surprisingly caused many to be cautious. And some who are prone to four-letter outbursts are probably best avoiding the thing altogether.
Another barrier, I also believe, is that the brevity demanded by Twitter’s character limit is a skill many politicians lack – I’m thinking of you Mike Whitby.
It is also not the forum for detailed or nuanced debate – but a link to a blog can do the job. Some have embraced the technology and use it well, among them the new Labour councillor for Acocks Green John O’Shea, aka @Politicalhackuk, who has tweeted 25,000 times, mainly on politics, but also TV’s The Apprentice, sport and other things that catch his attention. He has almost 2,500 followers.
And because, by councillor standards, he stands at the cutting edge of social media, Coun O’Shea has been asked to help his Labour colleagues who want to get up and running with Twitter, Facebook and blogging.
To be fair the uptake among the Labour group is fairly high. Half the cabinet makes regular use of Twitter, where as only one member of the previous Tory Lib Dem cabinet tweeted – and this @mullaney3, who online has proved capable of starting a row in an empty room. He had also previously been warned by his party leader about his contributions to another website.
That party leader, Paul Tilsley, can be now be found settling a few old scores as @1oldcodger.
Despite the hype, most of it generated by the ‘twitterverse’ itself, it will not replace the tried and tested campaigning methods, Coun O’Shea argues.