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Saturday 16 May 2009

Will the real You please identify yourself ?

It's election time again in Ireland folks, and so roll up and vote for your favourite European MP, local county councillor and, if you're lucky, by-election TD.

It can be a tough choice. Unless you really know somebody well, you don't really know their values, their ethics and their objectives. Is the candidate whom you see arguing in a heated TV interview or debate really like that in real life ? Does that manifesto really reflect the candidate's beliefs ? Is that opinion piece really what that politician thinks ?

Social networks provide political candidates with yet further channels to reach the electorate. Despite the popularity of Facebook, Bebo, Twitter and others here in Ireland, remarkably few of the Irish politicians appear to have embraced the medium. Obama set the gold standard during the US Presidential campaign. But for me, the challenge of the internet is confirming the authenticity of what is presented.

Impersonation and fooling the public is a popular theme in the movies for a very long time. The Prisoner of Zenda presents a mere commoner to impersonate his distant relative and the true would-be king when the latter is kidnapped before his coronation. The Great Impersonation provides a complicated web of intrigue. Kagemusha tells the story of a mere thief posing as a deceased Japanese warlord.

For the Irish public, and I suspect elsewhere, ghost-writing of articles and opinions on behalf of politicians is not uncommon. I have little doubt that a political candidate may argue that given the pressure of work, it makes sense to have someone else - especially a PR specialist - to spin a particular issue in favour of the chosen position of the candidate. With the advent of some political blogs from Irish politicians - including in one or two cases blogs which have only very recently suddenly popped up in the run up to the imminent elections - no doubt the temptation is there to sub-contract the authorship and content of the blog to an appropriately supportive ghost-blogger. Social networking contributions may equally be vulnerable to ghost-submitters working on behalf of a particular candidate.

It therefore is often challenging to read a political blog, or a political social network entry, or a political tweet, and know that whatever is said is actually said by the attributed politician. Perhaps some may feel that my observation is irrelevant: as long as the content is accurately ghost-written to reflect a candidate's true position, and their character and their personality, does it matter ? Maybe I am old fashioned, but actually I believe yes it does matter: if something is written by a named author, then I - naively - expect that that author actually wrote the piece. I am also naturally very happy to read something written on behalf of a politician by some third party who is not a ghost, but openly declares their authorship.

If ghost-contributions on the internet are supposed to be acceptable to the public, then is impersonation also acceptable ?

We laugh when we see comical impersonations of politicians: Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin comes to mind. But is it OK to laugh when a politician's views are impersonated in a tweet or blog or social network contribution ? If it is OK to be fooled by a ghost writer acting on behalf of a politician, then is it also OK to be fooled by a troll writer undermining a politician ?

Remarkably few of the Irish politicians and candidates have a web presence. Irish politicians and candidates are therefore vulnerable to having their web identity obtained by someone else. It would be all too easy for a well known politician to apparently start not only blogging, but to start socially commenting and tweeting. It is a particular risk for senior politicians, since their views are widely followed including by international media. And if some of the media are lazy in verifying web sources, such as a wikipedia quote from the deceased Maurice Jarre which in fact was invented from UCD student Shane Fitzgerald, then surely our senior politicians are very vulnerable indeed ?

The is of course the law of defamation. But a week can be a very long time in politics, and a defamatory comment (or tweet or blog or social comment) incorrectly attributed to a politician could cause significant political damage, even if the real author was eventually tracked down after lengthy forensic work, possibly over international boundaries, and perhaps ultimately brought to court in some jurisdiction. The political cat would be out of the bag well before then, and the political damage well caused before the author was found.

What if a (apparent) senior politician started tweeting on what "really" was said at important meetings ? Like when Mary Coughlan and Willie O'Dea went to Michael Dell ? Or what Brian Lenihan said about the prospects of an early general election to international bond investors ? Or what Brian Cowen said to Angela Merkel in Berlin on the Lisbon Treaty ?

The web, and particularly the social web, is a wonderful opportunity for politicians to reach out in a very sincere way to the electorate. But it is also potentially a very dangerous tool by which a politician could be severely undermined by opponents or even by naive cynics.

I believe that politicians ignore the web at an extreme peril. They should go out of their way to claim their identities on the web as a matter of urgency, and be brave enough to then use it honestly and ethically to the electorate.

3 comments:

Padraig said...

Points well made Chris. As a PR professional I believe our role for the future is all about that key principle of 'authenticity'. The effective use of our capability wil not be writing or scriptimng thoughts for business or political figures but will instead be in helping them analyse and interpret their environment more precisely and in facilitating them in the development of the skills to deliver their thoughts. One outcome I believe of the growing influence of social media tools is that the ability to communicate will get a significantly greater prominence among the required skills of leaders in society, because if they can't, the medium will find them out.

Brian O'Donovan said...

This is an interesting blog post.

On a slightly related topic, I read in the Irish Times at the weekend about an exhibition of historical Irish election posters.

The notable thing is that in the past election posters frequently contained a political message, but the recent trend is that the poster should only contain the name of the candidate, their party allegiance and a nicely airbrushed picture. The only advantage in such posters is that they would help you recognise the candidate if they came canvassing your vote in person. They give you no idea at all about whether or not the candidate would be suitable for the office they are seeking.

chris horn @chrisjhorn said...

I note that Twitter has just announced it will introduce verifiable tweeting, as a result of legal action against it -- see http://blog.twitter.com/2009/06/not-playing-ball.html ......