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Don't be a Twitter twit


Woman using Twitter on phoneJust because you can legally say something, doesn't mean you should — or that it is professionally responsible to do so. As SBS presenter Scott McIntyre discovered when he was sacked for his controversial tweets about Anzac Day, the internet can sometimes be a treacherous place to test the boundaries of 'acceptable' free speech.

McIntyre learned this lesson the hard way, and he is hardly the first to do so. Remember Justine Sacco — the former PR representative who made the ill-advised decision one bright day back in December to tweet an out-of-context joke to her 170 followers, and then shut down her phone for a flight to Africa?

For 11 long, defenceless hours, the world got to stew over the following 12 words: 'Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!'

As I said: ill advised. When she landed, she opened her phone to a cacophony of alerts, including urgent messages from friends and a call letting her know she was the #1 worldwide trend on Twitter under the hashtag, #HasJustineLandedYet. Oh, and she, too, was fired.

Was she responsible for the demise of her professional life? Not solely. Had the tweet stayed within the realm of her 170 followers, one of her friends probably would have pointed out how it could be perceived, and she would have deleted it without anyone being the wiser.

No, Sacco owes her status as an example of social media faux pas to the thousands of people who re-posted and shared her tweet with the world — across every possible social media platform — all in a few short hours.

McIntyre and Sacco are not alone. There are countless stories of split-second, foolish social media decisions that led to public shaming, viral criticism and job loss. From people tweeting about how much they hate their jobs or updating their status on Facebook to give away company secrets, to those who actually didn't realise that everyone could see that picture, the internet is rife with social media carelessness.

There is one thing that many of the stories above have in common: these people's status updates and unfortunate tweets were shared far, far beyond their own personal range of influence.

That's what happens these days. Sadly, there are people out there who relish and even make money off of other people's misery. Users with thousands of followers will share something intended for the context of a few friends, and it cannot be taken back.

Most of us genuinely want to be decent internet users. But every day, one of those seemingly decent internet users destroys the life of another by over-popularising their thoughtless mistake. By sharing, blogging or quoting another user's controversial words, are you becoming one of them?

Worry not, Decent Internet User. Here are three steps we can all take to make a better social media world:

Don't talk poorly about people. Posting bad thoughts about a person online is like gossiping about someone and turning around to see they're standing right behind you. It's awkward for all who witness, and deeply uncomfortable for you and that person. It might seem worth it to vent in the heat of the moment, but in real life you can vent to just your best friend. On social media, you're venting to the universe, which probably includes the person you're venting about.

Don't join in on a social media flogging. Don't Like, Favourite, Share or Retweet another person's negative thoughts, even if they're true. Isn't there enough negativity in the world? Why spread it around? Besides, by disseminating another person's pessimism, you are putting your stamp of approval on it in the eyes of your own followers, whether you want to or not.

Take a breath before you hit enter. A status can change your life in five minutes — not to mention somebody else's. Think about what you are going to share or say before you present it to the world. Not only is it better for you morally, but you could also be forced to pay for defamation if you aren't careful. Before you respond in your blog, retweet a public figure's crass joke, or share someone's status, take inventory of what the possible effects might be for you and that person, and whether they're worth it.

If we all started to follow these three basics steps, think of the social media world we could create — a world where people could actually make mistakes, apologise and then everyone moves on.

Amy ClarkeAmy Clarke is a Melbourne marketing copy writer who blogs here.

Topic tags: Amy Clarke, social media, Twitter, Justine Sacco, Scott McIntyre



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Existing comments

Some wise rules from Amy. We all need to follow rules to negotiate daily life and the internet should be no exception. A foolish remark and all hell can break loose and that hell can last for a long time. There's a song about "sorry being the hardest word". And it certainly can be.

Pam | 01 May 2015  

Well done! This is excellent advice that anyone who uses social media should follow.

Judy Suiter | 01 May 2015  

There is a massive difference between ignorant, racist and insulting remarks and an angry, informed - and admittedly risky - response to ANZAC Day. McIntyre said what many felt during the overblown and overtly jingoistic celebration of the ANZAC myth. It should never have been a sackable offence. A rebuke perhaps? It yet again shows what a terrified corporate culture we live in. Your comments are very sensible and valuable for a high school social media policy (and for general personal interaction online) but Mr McIntyre is/was an adult with years of journalistic experience. Perhaps he was just sick to death of being fed nostalgic mythology rather than factual and realistic reporting of a tragic event. Maybe he wanted to say what he believed to be true despite the fact he knew he would be in a minority. We can't all be 'nice' or make concessions around our ethics because our opinion will be seen to be unpopular. I don't think Mr McIntyre is a martyr or a hero but I do think he had every right to post the comments I read in the media without being sacked.

Steve | 04 May 2015  

"'Acceptable' free speech'? That isn't free speech. When people start losing their jobs for expressing an opinion - and McIntyre's wasn't a particularly original or unusual one - something really is rotten in the state of Australia.

Tony Thompson | 04 May 2015  

The sycophantic over-reaction of SBS management is surely the thing to be critiquing, not the accurate but 'unwise in the circumstances' tweets. You might just as well have written that the Charlie-Hebdo cartoonists had behaved unprofessionally and were taught a short sharp lesson in the appropriate ranges of free-speech on the net. An article on the ethics of a management which relies on unquestioning reactive techniques rather than informed discussions and nuanced explorations of what is OK or not in particular situations might have better suited Eureka Street's ethos? Just what is a suitable response to an accurate description of a history that has become so lauded and anodysed that the truth can no longer be voiced? Apparently it's the danger of management's over-reaction which has to be managed and should be challenged - the critique shouldn't be on having the guts to say it in the first place.

Marion | 04 May 2015  

As I understand it Scott McIntyre used his SBS twitter account to tweet his opinion of the commemoration of Anzac Day. Apparently he was asked by SBS management to delete the tweet but refused and was subsequently sacked. I think that probably was a reasonable position by SBS. If on the other hand he had tweeted on his private account and not identified himself as an SBS employee I believe he would have been perfectly entitled to do so. Would his tweets have had to same impact? I very much doubt it. Therein lies the problem for McIntyre - in order for his tweet to carry the impact he desires he must risk the wrath of his employer.

D. O'Connor | 04 May 2015  

To be a twitter you'd have to be a twit with bugger-all else to do or a bird brain - wouldn't you?

john frawley | 04 May 2015  

Mr Mcintyre was treated harshly because he used his SBS account & because PM Abbott has the ABC & SBS management terrified over possibly losing their own jobs. "Little Johnny" (Howard) charted these waters before Tony Abbott and he also targeted any of his critics in the ABC. Someone in Germany also did this media control a lot more ruthlessly in the period from 1930 to 1945. Freedom of opinion is under attack right now in the Aurtralian media and online in the future. PM Abbott, Attorney General Brandis & company are leading the charge, via their "Meta data" laws now under development. Their overt purpose is anti-terrorism, but PM Abbott has the internet opinion channels like Twitter & Facebook targeted over the way his poor leadership & performance has been reported. Hopefully for freedom of speech in written & verbal Australian media, Mr Abbott will not survive beyond the next federal election. Freedom is not free, despite young writers like Amy Clarke perhaps wishing it was so. I do not support defamation or libel, or stupid "threw-away" lines like in Ms Sacco's Twitter posting. However, freedom of political dissent is a cornerstone of democracy.

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 04 May 2015  

I have been using Email for more than 30 (yes 30) years. And I consider every message carefully before sending it. Even then, i make mistakes, or could have said it better, etc. I do not consider that computer communication is in any way secure - it never has been and it probably never will be. One activity I indulged in was to propagate "Humour from the Internet", that is, jokes, humourous stories, and so on. I stopped when some person suggested that at least some were inappropriate, even though I disagreed that such was the case at least with the story that was the occasion of the response. I report this because the perception of error is often in the listener or reader. So even after taking a breath, take another and perhaps not send the message anyway.

Peter Horan | 04 May 2015  

Has anyone else wondered why an article about Twitter does not appear as a feature on Eureka Street's Twitter feed?

Tony Robertson | 06 May 2015  

Amy it undermines Scott a journalist's position to challenge what in my view is an unfair and politically motivated dismissal by blithely labeling him a twitter twit. His comments are defensible and it is a breach of the SBS act which upholds a fundamental democratic doctrine of the separation of political and public service wings for Minister Turnball to interfere in the Employment process. Thanks Brian Pound

Brian Pound | 08 May 2015  

To use Scott McIntyre as an example of a 'twitter twit' is ridiculous and to compare his tweets with Justine Sacco's appalling.
Read Jon Ronson's book Public Shaming

Michael J | 27 May 2015