One of the most common pleas for help I received as head of media at the Scottish Conservatives was from politicians getting heat for something they’d posted on Twitter.
As soon as the number of interactions passed a certain threshold, panic would set in and the advice of the press office would be sought.
Should I just delete it? Should I apologise? Make my account private? DELETE MY ACCOUNT?
Politicians are vulnerable to social media mishaps, but anyone who uses Twitter semi-regularly is likely to have been involved in a small storm at some stage.
I experienced one myself over the last 24 hours, and decided to use it as an experiment to see how best to deal with such eventualities.
And the conclusion I’ve reached to the above question is this: do nothing.
The only valid reason for deleting a tweet would be if it contained a glaring factual error, or if your employer instructed you to remove it. Otherwise, stick to your guns.
My miniature row involved what I thought was a fairly innocent tweet describing newly-erected bollards on a stretch of road in Edinburgh which were causing problems for drivers.
I knew this because, in the space of one minute, I saw the immediate aftermath of two minor crashes where drivers had clearly collided with them.
I stand by the point, even if the use of the words “stupid” and “needless” was probably too provocative and pig-headed.
At first, there wasn’t much interaction. A newspaper got in touch asking for a few details, but then lost interest when they realised the bumps themselves were pretty innocuous.
Then a respected journalist responded, suggesting that when cars and bollards collide, it tends to be the driver’s fault – especially if the bollards are obvious, brightly-coloured and clearly in a lane of their own.
Our polite exchange continued then fizzled out, but as that happened a torrent was building of Twitter users – many of whom were anonymous and almost all men – furious that I should be so critical of measures to keep cyclists safe.
It hadn’t really occurred to me that these were specific cycling measures – the lane seemed too wide for just bikes, and was continually interrupted by jutting kerbs, buses pulling in and parked cars.
None-the-less, Edinburgh’s cycling fraternity was raging, and they soon spread the word to their associates across Scotland and the UK.
Now, 24 hours on, the tweet has been responded to 325 times and counting.
Almost all responses are negative. Some are abusive, most are mocking. Some are even quite amusing.
They come from a range of people, including some who I suppose regard themselves as Twitter’s version of Civic Scotland, who carry a reasonably large following and hold jobs of relative heft.
The type of people getting on board for a barb fall into the following categories:
The artificially outraged: “I’m appalled that such dangerous attitudes are still around in 21st century Scotland.”
The grasses: “Ooh, I wonder what @<insertemployer> makes of this?” “Does @<insertemployer> know the kind of people they are employing? I hope they take action.”
The detectives: “I’ve looked into @adammorrisedin and it turns out he once liked a Tweet in 2013 suggesting too many cyclists jumped red lights. He has form for this kind of hate, and now I know where he lives.”
The Paxmans: “I’m going to ask you a very specific and unrelated question which, however you answer, will allow me to retweet to my followers as an example of your immorality.”
The extrapolators: “You’ve said x, which must mean you believe y. Are you admitting you believe y? That’s a disgrace and you should be ashamed.”
The slangers: These are among the most annoying, and it’s particularly bad in Scotland. Those who use phrases and words they never would in real life: “Mate, you’ve had a ‘mare, ya pure fanny.”
The umpires: “I’ve watched this exchange and declare that you’ve lost – on behalf of all Twitter, my decision is you’ve been owned/telt.”
These are all people who would never behave like this in real life – it’s a Twitter persona they’ve invented and flit effortlessly in and out of. I’ve taken on many of the above roles myself, and feel utterly ashamed for having done so.
It reached a point yesterday when I considered deleting the tweet. I was growing tired of the notification distraction and, no matter how thick-skinned anyone professes to be, receiving shed-loads of abuse gets you down.
If it’s there in your notifications, you read it, and that can’t be good for anyone’s mental wellbeing. The all-out abuse I could handle fine, but the piss-taking and mocking – especially if the particular jibe was presented effectively and wittily – I found difficult to take en masse.
So I muted the thread, and what an enormous difference it made. It’s still muted now, and for all that time people have been yelling at me, poking fun and insulting and I am absolutely none the wiser. I could go in and look now, but I don’t even feel the need to. Let them howl into the abyss.
The fact is, in a few days this will be forgotten about and never raised again. Perhaps it’s slightly easier for me as I don’t have an employer to enrage (and I can’t sack myself) although I do have clients and future clients who may be put off by such heated exchanges.
But that’s when you have to remember just how insignificant Twitter is. The vast majority of Scots are not active Twitter users and, were I to go out today and ask 100 people if they’d seen yesterday’s exchange, I’d be surprised if even one had.
Too many people become obsessed with Twitter and think it’s indicative of public mood and representative of the population at large: it is absolutely neither.
Even those using Twitter behave differently than they do in public – it’s a forum that makes people mentally ill, turns them seamlessly into bullies, and – as the kids say – gives a platform to the worst version of themselves.
In fairness, every now and then they tweet about the Samaritans and tell you to #bekind.
So if you do find yourself in a Twitter storm, stand by your initial musing, and mute the thread if the notifications become too much. And whatever you do, don’t engage.
Debating on Twitter is like bringing a slipper to a knife fight. And even in an exchange of insults, your responses can be isolated and made to look like you’re just being randomly abusive. Many of these people crave the attention of a reply – don’t hand them that pleasure.
Don’t delete either – a user will have taken a screenshot anyway and then use the erasing of it against you. That just makes you look doubly pathetic.
Let the time wasters waste time and the angry folk shout – with the glory of “mute” you need never know they even exist.