Twitter: the Dry Kindling of Internet Firestorms

Many years ago, long before Twitter, we all became aware of the limits of email as a medium of communication. Lacking the depth of non-verbal communication, voice inflection, and body language, it was easy to misunderstand the writer’s intention. Misunderstandings and conflicts could develop that would never have occurred in a face to face conversation or even a phone call.

If you think email has problems…

I learned early in my career that if things seem to be getting heated or confrontational on email, it’s time to pick up the phone and clear things up.

In the days of email discussion lists, Usenet newsgroups, and Live Journal, the term Flame War came into use, generally referring to an online argument which arose as an artifact of this format in which tone could be easily misinterpreted.

Facebook made this phenomenon a bit worse. It encouraged posts of a few sentences instead of a few paragraphs, and comments on those posts were generally even shorter. With less information, misunderstandings increased.

Twitter distilled communication to a form which minimized content and nuance, creating an optimum environment for misunderstanding and conflict.

Twitter and the loss of nuance

I have never been a great fan of Twitter. How could you express any kind of nuanced, meaningful idea in 140 characters? Of course, that is the appeal of Twitter. Most people are not interested in nuance and meaning. They want to make a quick quip and be on to the next thing.

Twitter legitimizes intellectual laziness. When everyone is speaking in 140 characters, then your short, meaningless post is just as deep and meaningful as everyone else’s.

Yes, I know that Twitter has doubled their maximum to 280 characters. The basic principle remains. By comparison, according to Sprout Social, Facebook allows 63,206 characters, Instagram 2,200. Even YouTube allows 5,000 characters.

In a previous article, I emphasized the importance of not debating in comments for anyone who needs to speak from a position of authority. Twitter is like one big comment section. It’s very format almost encourages misunderstanding and strips nuance. Worse, it trains its users to think in short, staccato bursts.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson in which he discusses the power of Twitter to ruin lives.
Jon Ronson’s incredibly insightful book.

When I set up this web site, I was suggested by a number of friends to read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In it, he discusses a number of examples of individuals for whom a single Tweet or post had gone viral causing them to become pariahs. Often, they  lost jobs, friendships, and prestige due to a simple misunderstanding.

Justine Sacco’s Twitter nightmare

Justine Sacco made a single Tweet that went viral while she was on an international flight. It was one of a series of silly, off color, poorly thought out tweets that she made during her long travels to amuse herself. She was followed by 170 people at the time, and rarely have much if any engagement in her postings.

Justine Sacco Twitter tweet: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
Not quite as funny out loud as it was in her head.

But this one was picked up, and in the tinderbox of Twitter, all that anyone needed to know was what the 64 characters of her tweet said. Having been trained that every tweet is a fully self contained thought and that every tweet can represent a whole person, the Internet was fully prepared to judge and punish her based on this single entry.

She would subsequently lose her job, many of her friends, and her standing in the community, moving to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a time. Ultimately, four years later, she was able to fully return to society, getting a new job with IAC, from which she had been fired after her tweet.

Coming back in out of the cold

There are likely two factors in her return, both of which are instructive. The Internet forgets, and nuance finally developed. In his book, Ronson laments the fact that he has been part of many public shamings, and cannot remember the identity of most of his victims. Many of those involved in Sacco’s shaming probably forgot about her as quickly as they hit the send button.

She was also featured in Ronson’s 2015 article, which provided an opportunity for people to understand a larger picture. People were able to see her as the bored, exhausted traveler amusing herself with thoughtless tweets that she was, and not as the ignorant, spoiled, racist, rich brat that they wanted her to be.

Nothing spoils a joke like nuance.

Crisis communications in a Twitter World

One of the key axioms that I recommend to my clients is to communicate from the high ground. Get out of the comment sections. A social media status is better than a comment. An article or blog post is better than a social media status. A book is better than an article. And so on.

Most of those who suffered most gravely at the merciless hands of the Internet did so because they allowed the crowd to control their message, and thus, to define their identity. In such situations, while it is impossible to control the narrative, it is vital to influence it, and the first step of doing so is making the full truth available to the public. Only then is the next step to encourage them to partake of it.

A most common mistake is failing to put your story out there because you believe that nobody wants to hear it. They may not want to hear it, but when they do, and when they discover that their victim is a multidimensional person with a family, friends, hopes, dreams, and foibles, the joy of slaying a monster evaporates.


Is someone else defining your identity to the public? Contact us, and let us help you to make your story your own.

Speaking from Elected Authority

One of the biggest mistakes which elected leaders, especially municipal leaders, make in their communications strategy is failing to maintain an air of authority.

In my article on Crisis and Campaigns in the Age of Social Media, I explain the danger of getting down into the comments and arguing with your detractors. Social media is a very democratizing space. Everyone sounds equally credible in a discussion in the comments. This is good if you are an average person trying to break into the conversation, but it is very bad if you are a person of actual authority seeking to share the truth of the situation with your audience.

In my article, I discuss the concept of The Mayor, a fictional character found in many movies. The dapper, well dressed city leader who rules his city with high minded speeches from behind a large wooden desk.

The image of a mayor behind the desk.
This is the image of a mayor, in this case Jim Kenney as featured in The Business Journals. Arguing in the comments in inconsistent with this image. As a municipal leader, you should create this image in the minds of your constituents.

The Mayor sits behinds the desk. The Mayor gives eloquent speeches. The Mayor writes a column.

The Mayor DOES NOT scrap in the comments

Perhaps you are not able to draw large crowds to your speeches like the Mayor of Gotham City, but there are other ways to speak from authority. The easiest is a blog. You can either have a blog on the official municipal site, or, if there are regulations that make that complicated, you can create a blog on Blogger or WordPress.

Articles on an official blog have an authority that comments or even social media posts do not. They can be referred to as reference material. You are an authority, and you must communicate like one.

As an elected official, an article you write would even count as a valid source for Wikipedia!

In the event of a crisis communications situation, it is absolutely vital to have a proper platform from which to share your message. Having such a platform can prevent a crisis as well. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that is doubly true for information.

As an issue develops, people will find information somewhere. More often than not, when the public accepts erroneous information in a local issue it is not because they don’t trust authority. It is because the authority has not made the correct information easy to find.

People want the truth. They just don’t want to work very hard to find it. Make it easy for them, and make it easy for you. Share the facts from an official, central platform where you can control your message and share accurate information.


Do you need help connecting with constituents or crafting a message to ensure that truth wins out over misinformation? We can help. Contact us!