Have Politicians Got A Twitter Problem?

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

Last week saw apologies given by the Labour MP Neil Coyle for an online rant he gave on Twitter over the controversy relating to the performing of “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” at the Last Night of the Proms. In one of a few now deleted tweets, Coyle wrote that he had only known "sh*tlickers" to lick the traditional tunes.This was followed by the now-familiar cycle of deletion of the offending posts and a public climb-down come apology for the offending remarks. Casting an eye over the history of political Twitter gaffes, a trend is clear – which should probably prompt party HQ staffers to start getting quotes for media training courses.

Tweet first, think second: Labour and the SNP

Despite both occupying a similar place on the British political spectrum, the two parties have never attempted to govern together, either at Holyrood or Westminster. Even if their policy on Scottish independence and the lack of a general election on the horizon may mean that the yellow and red teams may stay opponents for now, that hasn’t stopped their representatives from making similar mistakes on social media.

Starting with the SNP, the main theme uniting these slip-ups is an inability to judge tone. Soon after the SNP romped to its momentous victory in Scotland at the 2015 general election, the newly elected MPs began slipping up. One of the new intake, Natalie McGarry, soon began facing serious allegations about financial irregularities at a campaign group she helped found, resulting in her withdrawing from the SNP whip in November 2015. Taking to Twitter in January 2016, she decided to engage J.K Rowling (!) in a six-hour argument, accusing the author of “defending misogynist trolls”, “vanity searching” her own name for arguments, and of being a misogynist herself despite being unable to produce evidence to back up her claims against Rowling. The spat ended up in threats of legal action for defamation on the part of Rowling, although no further action appears to have been taken. McGarry was later convicted and imprisoned on various charges of embezzlement (her Twitter profile bio states she is taking a “long break” from the website) and did not contest her seat at the 2017 election.

Even the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has found herself the target of some unconstructive criticism earlier this year from SNP MP for East Lothian, Kenny MacAskill, who used his official Twitter account to 'like' a post calling her a “narcissistic sociopath”. Weirdly, this came in response to her retweeting an article about the boom in popularity of a tartan face mask she wore in public due to Coronavirus restrictions, with MacAskill attempting to justify the like as a comment about the "commercialism" of face coverings. He did at least attempt to repair the damage by removing the like.

The recent Coronavirus pandemic has sparked something of a burst in rogue SNP Tweets. Back in April, with the national lockdown underway, Dunfermline and West Fife MP Douglas Chapman took to Twitter to not-so-innocently ask whether the lower rate of Coronavirus deaths in Scotland was down to “NHS Scotland’s vastly superior A&E performance OR is it Scotland’s 50 unique Coronavirus assessment centres keeping infected patients away from GP surgeries?". Although it wasn’t quite pure bragging, the Tweet’s strange tone and bad timing prompted a flood of responses, both from those who approved of the Tweets’ poking at the dire handling of the pandemic in England and from other party leaders unhappy with the content and tone. Chapman has stuck to his guns though, and can at least be respected for leaving the Tweet up.

Most recently, the leader of the party in Westminster, Ian Blackford, courted controversy when he shared an image depicting a sign at the Scotland-England border edited to say “f*ck off we’re full” in response to news that people had tbeen travelling to Scotland. Mr. Blackford did elaborate that he didn’t approve of the language in the Tweet, but rather wanted to comment on the apparent lack of heed paid to pleas from the Scottish government to not travel to the country, it might not have been the best way to get his message out.

Turning to Labour, readers may remember the recent controversy around shadow education secretary and Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey’s retweeting of an interview with actress Maxine Peake, during which Peake made claims that the police officers who were responsible for the death of George Floyd in May 2020 were trained by Israeli forces. Facing criticism that the claims made within the article could constitute an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, Long-Bailey initially tried to explain her intention behind retweeting the interview, but with Peake acknowledging that she had got things wrong and no movement by Long-Bailey to remove the Tweet, she was sacked from her position on the shadow cabinet. Unlike others on this list, she did eventually delete the Tweets, although it took her nearly a week to do so – either confirming that Starmer was right to remove her for lacking acceptance of cabinet collective responsibility, or a defiant stand made by the left of the Party against the installation of perceived pro-Starmer puppets.

Before that, Bradford West MP Naz Shah fell for a parody account aping newspaper columnist and journalist Owen Jones, and liked a Tweet which said that victims of sexual exploitation gangs in Rotherham “need to shut their mouths. For the good of diversity”. Shah presumably read the Tweet back to herself as the removed the like within minutes, but the damage had already been done, particularly as Shah had argued against stereotyping communities based on perceived involvement with such gangs.

Emily Thornberry committed a similar faux pas during the Rochester and Strood by-election in November 2014, tweeting an strangely out-of-context picture of a house with a van outside. The implied classism of her Tweet saw her resign from the shadow cabinet shortly afterwards, and fuelled the allegations that the party had lost touch with some of its former voters which have dogged it for the past few years.

Sleaze and Spin

Someone needs to tell the Tories they aren’t in the 1990’s anymore: although they have had majorities from 2015-17 and 2019-present, the sleaze of the old Major administration still seems to haunt them as evidence by the strange predilection for mixing the political and pornographical on official Twitter accounts.

Without resorting to cliche, it is concerning how many Tory MPs seem to have a history of interacting with some fairly unprofessional accounts and material on Twitter. Kicking things off in 2013 was Gavin Barwell, then an MP, whose actions betrayed a lack of technological understanding for someone who would later be Chief of Staff to Theresa May. In March that year, he clicked a link Tweeted by Labour, and finding an advert promoting a website promising he could “date Arab girls”, fired off a Tweet of his own remarking how inappropriate the ad might be alongside the press release of a major political party. Twitter users (and the Labour press office) wasted no time in informing him that Google AdSense, the programme responsible for the placement and targeting of ads like this one, likely placed the ad there in response to a profile created for Barwell based off his internet browsing history and interest (amongst other data points). Whilst the placement of the ad may not have been linked to Barwell’s own searching, it proved a fairly embarrassing episode for the then-MP, but he can at least be commended for leaving the Tweet up.

In a slightly raunchier episode, Karl McCartney (current MP for Lincoln) made a similar error a year later, when his official and verified account was discovered to have ‘favourited’ an explicit image of bondage pornography, prompting the swift removal of all 56 favourites the account had amassed and the bizarre denial that he had never used the account to favourite content despite the posts concerned dating back four years. Although prompting numerous replies making fun of the incident, Labour didn’t exactly do well out of the incident, as when the Labour candidate for the same seat wanted to draw attention to the misuse of official accounts, she simply Tweeted a screengrab of the image on her own account, further spreading inappropriate material to the constituents of Lincoln.

A similar incident occurred in 2018, when then-Secretary of State for Scotland and current Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, MP David Mundell, spent Christmas Day browsing Twitter, and using his official account to “like” a Tweet saying "all I want for Christmas is a good d**k to suck tbh". He quickly removed the like and made a polite Tweet putting the issue down to “big thumbs” and perhaps generating one of the more good-humoured responses to a gaffe Tweet so far.

Not to be outdone by Backbenchers, the current Conservative Cabinet has also committed the error of being slightly less-safe-for-work in usage of official accounts than the party would probably like. In May this year, with Coronavirus in the headlines and the furore over Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-breaking trip to Durham in full force, Michael Gove’s official account liked an explicit GIF of a woman performing a sex act alongside the legend “So Hott!!!💯”. The situation was quickly resolved, either by Gove or a member of his team with the login details, but no explanation was given for who was responsible for the rogue like.

Moving into the 21st century era of spin and “fake news”, the Conservative Party’s most recent Twitter mishap came from the rehashing of their official CCHQ account into “factcheckUK”, an apparently independent source set up to monitor a debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, which the independent charity FullFact called “inappropriate and misleading”. Although apparently part of a strategy to adopt a less conventional approach to electioneering via attention-grabbing posts, often “deliberately awful in design or controversial in their intent” including the “lo fi boriswave” campaign, the normally pro-Tory Telegraph concluding it was “unlikely to have done them any favours” as it distracted from the points made from the debate itself – although it did cause engagement with the CCHQ account to rise.

Political stragglers: Lib Dems, TIG, and more

Although the now infamous incident in which shadow chancellor Ed Balls once tweeted his own name by accident will be familiar to some, it didn’t really cause the kind of PR headache this piece focuses on. Although Tim Farron’s activity on the site has attracted attention, the Lib Dem’s rapid slide towards irrelevance since 2010 means a corresponding decline since the headier times of the inaugural “Ed Balls Day”.

The ever-amusing and much missed Change UK (née The Independent Group for Change) looked initially promising for social media gaffes, but the most pertinent ones came from candidates for elections rather than their sitting MPs, who preferred to make their messes in the real world. Two candidates were found to have authored bizarre and offensive Tweets made about women and ethnic groups, including “Black women scare me. I put this down to be chased through Amsterdam by a crazy black wh*re”, “I wonder if there’s a c*nt / anchovy correlation. One smells like the other.” and “When I hear that 70% of pick pockets caught on the London Underground are Romanian it kind makes me want Brexit.”. All pretty damning, and more extreme than the infamous “funny tinge” label given by then-MP Angela Smith in a TV interview.

They did manage one politically-motived gaffe though – when deciding to rebrand (for the third time) in May 2019, they updated their Twitter handle from the concise “@TheIndGroup” to the spambot-esque “@ForChange_Now”. As well as losing their voter recognition, spots on search engine results and their verified “blue tick”, they also managed to lose their previous handle to a Hard Brexit devotee totally opposed to their aims as a party, which deserves some kind of prize for the rarely seen multi-faceted social media gaffe. This was matched in irony only with the local UKIP branch who tweeted their outrage that the BBC were allegedly straw polling their leader Nigel Farage in front of a mosque - which was actually Westminster Cathedral. Oh dear.

In conclusion, although it might be amusing to note how many of the political Twitter blunders can be categorised like this, it does betray a serious need for co-ordinated Party strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes from being made over and over. Managing a political party with memberships in the thousands may not be easy, but surely it should be sensible to keep the Twitter logins locked away with any of the other skeletons in the closet whips have to deal with.

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