Long before the advent of 24 hour news, the Greek philosopher, Xenocrates, said: “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”
Silence is rarely an option nowadays for our elected representatives but many of them - especially the nimblest of thumb - would do well to heed the philosopher’s wise counsel.
Two local politicians found themselves in hot water recently over online remarks. One, DUP Councillor Ruth Patterson, faces a court appearance over a Facebook comment about a Republican parade in Tyrone. The other, Sinn Féin MLA Phil Flanagan, is being investigated by the Assembly Commissioner for Standards after ‘retweeting’ a remark about the latest royal birth.
Both cases illustrate in passing how our personal habits are being changed by the technological revolution. We use PCs, smartphones and tablet devices to blog, tweet and ‘Facebook’ one another, divulging our innermost thoughts, sharing private moments, even posting photographs of what we’ve had for dinner.
Social media has revolutionised the broadcasting landscape, spawning a new phenomenon: ordinary citizens one day are transformed into citizen journalists the next. In a global context, social media has even been cited as a significant factor in encouraging ‘the Arab Spring’ in the Middle East.
Online interaction can, of course, be a positive thing. An elderly man told RTÉ’s Late Late Show recently how he enjoyed ‘Skyping’ his son in the Philippines. Businesses can save a fortune by by-passing traditional ways of advertising. But some of social media’s greatest advantages – the access it offers to the world at large and its immediacy – carry great risks too.
The allure for politicians is obvious. Online networks help them to reach audiences outside their traditional support base. Clever exponents can even ‘manufacture’ an online persona, which casts them in a favourable light. Most importantly, instantaneousness can be a valuable publicity tool, allowing them to react straight away to any issue which arises and to comment on any subject they choose. But there’s the rub.
The use of social media is inherently dangerous. It puts users on something of a par with broadcasters and the press, where the laws of libel lie in wait for any transgressor. Last May, Sally Bercow – the wife of the Commons Speaker – reached a settlement with Lord McAlpine’s lawyers over a tweet which the High Court adjudged defamatory.
For all social media users, there is the danger that an injudicious comment or a rash act could land them in controversy. For those in elected office, whose courting of popularity is almost instinctive, the object should be to make news, not become news. When the latter happens, the consequences for party – as well as individual – can be serious.
There is an old African proverb which holds that “Haste is the sister of repentance”. This sound advice undoubtedly conflicts with the politician’s almost Darwinian drive to be the first to get his or her ‘spake’ in.
Social media is not only a useful tool but a powerful weapon, and like all weapons can be dangerous to the person who wields it.
We would all do well to heed one of our own old proverbs: "Least said, soonest mended."