Did you tweet something in the past that might cause you to lose your job? Will you tweet something tomorrow that will do that? These are the questions of the week. And the answers are affecting political candidates' ability to hire social media strategists. Controversial tweets also created heat for Jon Stewart's successor on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. But just how serious an issue is this?
I realize that I have written many columns in the past that call out politicos for offensive and inappropriate tweets. I hope that I have been consistent holding the line on these criticisms with respect to two key criteria: 1) the comments I call out cross lines that are broadly considered solid and 2) the comments are representative of a pattern of behavior (either with respect to other social media posts or with respect to offline behavior).
But when it comes to assessing the tweets of comedians and prolific social media politicos/activists, it is important to keep things in perspective, especially with respect to the two criteria I mentioned above. With comedians, while there are limits to what is considered good taste, we should expect them to push boundaries. And we should also expect them to fall flat occasionally, with some of those failures coming as the result of crossing one of those lines.
But comedians have to learn how to get back up after a fall and try again. And it is their growth that is of particular concern when we judge them. That said, any comedian who uses political satire will inevitably piss off people (often half of the people). That is the nature of politics and it is the risk of political satire.
Also, we have a long tradition of comedians who insult everyone. Don Rickles, Rodney Dangerfield, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and, of course, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show all use insults as part of their repertoire. And while the incessant strings of racial slurs coming from the mouth of Don Rickles make Trevor Noah's few controversial tweets seems tame, Rickles is a revered comedian. And the current popularity of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (not to mention Comedy Central's Roast series) proves that the public's acceptance of such off-color humor remains strong.
When it comes to political social media strategists, the best ones are active on social media. That means they are out there commenting on the news, issues, politicians and their policy proposals. But it also means they are using the best practices that they advise politicians to use.
Among these best practices are to mix personal observations and opinion with their professional wonky politics stuff. In order to be influential on social media, to grow an audience that shares your messages, you have to provide them with a compelling presence. A "Johnny One Note" is boring, no matter how brilliant.
But this comes with risks, as Governor Scott Walker's social media strategist Liz Mair discovered. In her case, simply questioning the continued value of Iowa being the first presidential caucus forced her to resign a day after she was hired. Not even a racial slur, just a perceived disrespect of a proud Midwestern state was enough to end her employment.
Mair's reaction was that she understood the decision to let her go and was impressed at Walker's staff's ability to discover her errant tweets so quickly. When it comes to politics, we are clearly ultra-sensitive. Mair's comments were seen as damaging to Walker's efforts in Iowa. In the past, other social media staff for politicians crossed lines with sexist and racist tweets and Facebook post (here and here). They lost their jobs, too. But are these examples truly equivalent?
Social media calls on people to be authentic, human and real (at least metaphorically). But, as we all know, "to err is human." But also, as the oft-quoted phrase continues, "to forgive, divine."
We should expect people who use social media to talk about important issues of the day, whether as satirists, pundits or activists, to slip on occasion. That is human. But if we judge them, we should judge not their slips, but on their patterns of behavior and how they get back up.
The measure of any person is not an occasional tweet or Facebook post. It is a pattern of living; a presentation of persistent values. And especially when someone is putting themselves out there on a continual basis, as comedians and social media strategists do, judging them only by their worst tweets will always lead you to judge them too harshly.