Blowing up in the social media minefield: Part one

A Twitter user recently wrote that social media is ?a cool place to have friendly, open conversations with a small group of people in front of hundreds of online enemies who’re watching intently for you to make some sort of screenshottable error?. A steady parade of politicians, academics, celebrities and other public figures are failing to learn this, at their peril.

The Australian Greens, particularly their Victorian state branch, have been caught up in a steady stream of social media scandals. One candidate was forced to quit after posts gloating about shoplifting and drug use surfaced. Another is in hot water over his previous persona of a rapper bragging about date rape and domestic violence, and posting fantasies of being served drinks ?by topless chicks?.

Now, the Greens are in it again. Quote:

A Victorian Greens staffer has ?offered his resignation after it was revealed his social media was filled with messages about pedophilia as well as religious and sexist slurs.

The Twitter posts of Paul McMillan, who works for Greens Northcote MP Lidia Thorpe, joke about Islam and glorify public sex acts, according to the Herald Sun.

Mr McMillan identifies himself as a Greens staffer and is followed by Ms Thorpe, who is therefore able to view his tweets.

?If we started locking up everyone who?s addicted to child porn there?d be nobody left,? one tweet reads. Others joke about domestic violence, Muslims and feminism.

?Pretty f..ked how Muslims want to ban my favourite hobby, greasing myself up in pig fat and oinking like a grunter at the traffic lights,? another tweet says.

And another: ?Bring the p—- back to porn I can get behind that. Literally.?

?When are allegedly female trollumists going to learn that breasts are not a magical f—— tractor beam,? another says. He also tweeted about public sex acts, ?fat fetishes? and pornography. End of quote.

Now, I don?t want to wax all self-righteous: some of those tweets are kind of funny (depending on your sense of humour), and even if others are just offensive: well, I wouldn?t be much of a free speech advocate if I thought things that offend me couldn?t be said.

The problem for Paul McMillan, though, is if, as the article suggests, he identifies himself as a Greens staffer. Like it or not, he is, therefore, putting himself out as a representative of his employer. His employer also seems to have established rules about social media use: Quote:

Ms Thorpe told the Herald Sun the tweets were a breach of employment rules and the staffer had offered his resignation. End of quote.

I?ve written before that our social lives are divided between ?public? and ?private? spheres. What we can say, and can get away with saying in private is not the same as in public: think of any joke you?d crack to your best friends, but not in front of a crowd. The problem is that social media is blurring the boundaries between the two. Work used to be part of the private sphere; now, not so much. Especially when some jobs actually require employees to have a social media presence, and almost all employers today have codified rules about social media use.

This may not seem fair, but it is the world we live in. One solution within easy reach is for public figures to maintain separate accounts for their public and private selves, and use the easily accessible settings on Facebook or Twitter to rigorously control who has access to their private accounts.

That won?t stop rats, of course, but nothing ever has. You can?t stop your friends betraying you, but you can make sure your enemies aren?t watching your every move like hawks.

Either that or start privately living up to the self-righteous image you project in public.