The Perils of the Wild Wood: Social Media and Politicians

January 5th, 2015

If in doubt… Don’t. Just don’t go there. That’s my advice, dear politician.

Mole enters the Wild Wood, with those eyes watching him. (Illustrator: Richard Johnson/V&A)

Mole enters the Wild Wood, with those eyes watching him. (Illustrator: Richard Johnson/V&A)

Let me give you an illustration of what I am talking about. When I was growing up, I was very fond of an English classic called “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame (he was one of those children’s writers who was not really that keen on children himself). In Chapter Three, the amiable Mole, who has an adventurous streak, is fascinated by and ultimately drawn to a place called the Wild Wood (as a fearful young child I always skipped this chapter). On a cold winter’s evening, Mole ventures to the Wild Wood alone (he has left his wise friend Ratty at home). Starting off brightly enough, he soon starts to see hostile faces appearing in the shadows; he hears strange sounds, footsteps – coming to get him, perhaps? Poor Mole panics and runs, loses his way and ends up hiding – a quivering heap – under a tree root, as the snow falls and obliterates everything. After Ratty rescues him and Mole is back in his comfort zone underground, his friends assure him that the denizens of the wood are “not so bad, really; and we must all live and let live.” In future, though, the chastened Mole reflects, he will “keep to the pleasant places…which hold adventure enough, in their way…”

Such is the young Jamaican politician, venturing into the strange territory of social media. He (or she) is confident at first; he knows his way around. But his discomfort grows; there are people out there, lots of people – unpredictable, even slightly intimidating. It’s not quite what he expected. He gets nervous as the voices grow louder. He takes evasive action, in vain. Panic sets in, resulting in an emotive, knee-jerk reaction. And then the snow starts to fall.

Because – guess what? Social media is not really “media” in the way that politicians once understood it to be. You cannot put out a statement or a press release, and expect it to be swallowed wholesale and regurgitated by the traditional media (who are themselves rapidly changing) as in days gone by. No. The new media will share it; dissect it; quote it in all kinds of contexts; edit it; add hashtags to the key words (#fruitpopfor example). It is all fair in love and war, although politicians caught in the social media web often complain that it is undoubtedly not fair, at all. Social media is not a group of well-behaved journalists, who will compliment you and politely give you a pat on the back for your self-aggrandizing posts. No. That rarely happens, these days. Even the journalists, whether online or not, are not as compliant as they used to be – they actually ask tricky questions at post-Cabinet briefings!

Mole gets nervous. Very nervous.

Mole gets nervous. Very nervous.

Social media are “society,” not necessarily journalists at all. They are people with ideas, “agendas,” opinionated, possibly biased, with emotions sometimes too close to the surface, with their own unique and peculiar ways of expressing themselves, an unfiltered vox pop. Many journalists are listening and joining in, and the latest fracas on Twitter or Facebook inevitably leaks out onto the Gleaner website, for example. Let’s fact it, social media is basically untamable. It’s a free agent, wandering at will, at the whim of its eager participants. And that is the joy of it.

Yet it’s oh, so tempting for the politicians, isn’t it? This open space, whereby he/she can win friends and influence people. Where he can share ideas, feel the pulse of opinion – or simply blow your own trumpet. It is actually used very well and skillfully by a few politicians. He/she can post photos of him/herself doing nice things (like walking on the beach, for example). It’s exciting – an online adventure, with worlds to be conquered, hearts to be won over. Oh, but the risks are great for the naïve politician, venturing into that mysterious, enticing Wild Wood.

Well, then. A politician commits a social media error (and it may not be anything major at all). We all make mistakes occasionally; we get over it, apologize, an online friend “blocks” us…No big deal. We learn from our mistakes as we go along; we’re only human. However, a politician is no ordinary mortal – and he/she would agree with you on that; they like to be considered special. And as no ordinary mortal, they cannot afford to make mistakes. Not even one. They are not – repeat not – private individuals in the eyes of society. So, they should think twice – and again, and then again – before they expose any aspect of their private life online that is open and available to the public. Seriously. Politicians are public figures, with their own set of rules to follow. Or they should have rules, and these rules should be self-imposed. They need to grasp this.

No! Don't panic! Too late...

No! Don’t panic! Too late…

Now, the politician has said or done something silly, and those social media people are on to it in a flash. Too late even to retract or delete. It’s already out there. What does the hapless public official do? Like a tortoise, realizing it is in danger, he must withdraw into his shell. Pull his head in, and stay there for a while. Do not respond and make things worse. Because things can get worse, suddenly and frighteningly. Peep out cautiously, when the coast is clear.

Some damage has been done, sure. Depending on the gravity of the error in the eyes of the public, the cyber-error might reverberate for weeks. Stay low, dear politician. Refuse to be drawn out, like defenders, or the attackers will slip in behind you and score a goal (pardon the football analogy). Quietly develop the thick skin you should have already been growing. Do not lash out; do not panic. If you have to make a statement, use cool, calm language; don’t go out with fists swinging. You will just open yourself up to much worse criticism. Even if you feel emotional, don’t express it. Go to a yoga class or work it out in the gym, dear politician – privately.

One more thing, my dear young politician. Don’t – don’t make the mistake of assuming that everyone online is your friend and is going to think you are extremely cool. Ever since the disastrous tweet by a junior minister that he was having an awesome time at a party in London while on an official visit, the warning signs should have been up, with flashing lights. Yes, we know: you want to get close to the people. This is the new era of political engagement, and there are many ways of doing it. Chatting in patois/slang online is not one of those ways. You are special, remember? You are – oh yes – you are a leader! No longer one of the masses, you are supposed to set an example and gain respect!

To use yet another analogy: Social media is a bit like a game of table tennis. Your opponent hits the ball at you, and you have to send it straight back, right away. Otherwise, it will go out of play. But sometimes it is perfectly fine to let the ball leap off the table into the swimming pool and go out of play for a while. Just leave it. And remember, if you start the game – if you serve, then your opponent will hit it back at you so fast you won’t even know it. Then you will wonder what happened.

For the writer Kenneth Grahame, the Wild Wood represented a place “where the old social order has crumbled away and been replaced by anarchy,” according to a biographical article in the Daily Telegraph in 2008. What a perfect way to describe the world of social media. But that is the way it is supposed to be. Yes, it is “freedom of speech in an unregulated space,” as one official who recently fell into the social media trap peevishly complained in a letter to the Editor – a letter was not necessary, by the way. I do get uncomfortable when politicians talk about “regulation,” though. Let’s leave well alone. And the inhabitants of the Wild Wood are not so bad, really. Their bark is worse than their bite.

Out with the old, in with the new media environment, where anything can – and does – happen.

Our politicians, and anyone in the public eye, had better get used to it. We’re all out there now, in the Wild Wood, and it’s not for the faint-hearted.


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4 Responses to “The Perils of the Wild Wood: Social Media and Politicians”

  1. Jeffery Sinclair says:

    Very Long but cleverly written. Lots of lessons. Sometimes a simply apology and then silence is best.

  2. Dennis Jones says:

    I was reminded of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, But, like in many horror movies, just because a door creaks open a little, one doesn’t have to run headlong through it. A graceful retreat is often the wise tack. He’s young and hopefully will learn.

  3. EmmaLewis says:

    I’m sorry – a little longer than usual, I admit. That was my point – don’t get sucked into it all!

  4. EmmaLewis says:

    Yes! (Our son’s favorite book as a child). That was really my point – social media is alluring. But sometimes for our less mature public officials it’s best not to give in to the temptation! Yes, I hope he (and some of his colleagues) will learn. Thanks for your comment, Dennis!