Social Media Obscures Line Between “on the record” and “off the record”

By: Law is Cool · September 19, 2009 · Filed Under Media Law, Politics, Technology · Add Comment 

| Guest Post By Huma Rashid | Originally posted at Social Media Law Student

HowardDeanOnly this time, it’s a clash between the political and the cultural. Pop-cultural, to be exact.

Twitter, as everyone who reads this law-and-social-media blog already knows, is a micro-blogging service which allows users to submit ‘tweets,’ or messages no longer than 140 characters in length. Everyone’s on Twitter these days – Shaquille O’Neal, President Barack Obama, my beloved Stephen Fry, and probably even your father.

And, because everyone can use it and it takes ten seconds to write something and post it, Twitter has been causing many, many problems over the years and especially during its recent boom in popularity.

Recent Events

The fact that this discussion adds coverage to this already over-hyped incident is unfortunate, but it seems unavoidable. On Sunday, September 13, 2009, Taylor Swift won an award at the MTV Video Music Awards for Best Video (”You Belong With Me”). Before she could fully launch into her acceptance speech, singer Kanye West hopped up on stage, took her microphone, and declared that Beyonce should have won for her video (”Single Ladies”), which he stated was the best video of the decade. The technicians cut to tape and Ms. Swift was escorted off stage without finishing her speech. It was reported that Mr. West was drinking throughout the evening, and he was promptly asked to leave after the incident. Since then, he has posted two blog entries (one presumably written while he was still under the influence and one that is much shorter) and has appeared on Leno to express his contrition and his sincere apologies.

Countless celebrities have weighed in with several choice words for Mister West, most of them through Twitter. They’ve gone on their own personal record and brought West to task for his rude behavior. The most recent celebrity to go on the record via Twitter is President Barack Obama. The only problem is, he was pointedly off the record…or so he thought.

Barack Obama’s Off the Record (sort of) Remarks

The American public holds its president to a very high, some would argue unattainable, standard. He is at once the leader of the free world, the official face of our government, and our community leader, but it is his role as just another human being that is often eroded in this construction. Casual opinions, no matter on how banal a subject, often come under close scrutiny and is treated as though it were some sort of official edict.

This incident proves nothing else. Shortly before an interview with CNBC, President Obama was discussing the VMA incident off the record. During this off-record portion of the interview, he called Kanye West a “jackass.” It was a casual, off-color remark that was overheard by ABC News Reporter Terry Moran, who promptly tweeted the following: “Pres. Obama just called Kanye West a ‘jackass’ for his outburst at VMAs when Taylor Swift won. Now THAT’S presidential.”

The tweet was promptly deleted, and ABC has since issued an apology for Moran’s breach of journalistic integrity. TMZ obtained audio of the incident; the clip is below.

Repeat Offenders

Of course, the fact that the tweet was immediately deleted hardly signifies. The tweet had already appeared in Twitter’s public timeline and on Moran’s official account, as well as on the pages of the +1,000,000 number of people who follow him. It didn’t matter that Obama was technically off the record when he made that remark (meaning that it would not have been printed in a newspaper or posted on an online news site); all that mattered was that the remarks were out there. The damage was done.

With the advent of Twitter, this is hardly a new issue, but it is becoming increasingly problematic. This is hardly the first time that remarks that either were off-record or were internal musings that should never have approached anything resembling a record were made part of the public consciousness through this social media platform.

There have been countless stories over the past few years about employees losing their jobs because of disparaging remarks they made about their work or their superiors on Facebook or Twitter, where others from their company could easily see and relate the information through the appropriate channels. Celebrity feuds and defamation lawsuits have started over nothing more than a few tweets. A Texas football player was removed from his college football team after he made a ‘pitchforks at dawn’-esque comment shortly after President Obama won the 2008 election.

stateoftheunionAside from average citizens getting in a little over their heads, past events have shown that even our elected officials occasionally neglect to use their common sense in this regard. A representative landed in hot water when he tweeted that he was in Afghanistan, with his critics charging that it was classified information that he should not have made public. Another Congressman was humiliated when he made an unfavorable remark about Nancy Pelosi (and her smirks) during President Obama’s first State of the Union address.

The same representative from the first example found himself in even more trouble when he tweeted details of Obama’s stimulus plan during a closed-door meeting the President held with leading Democratic and Republican Congressmen. In case that didn’t sink in fully, consider this: the meeting that Obama called during the planning phases of the recovery act was entirely closed-door. There were no cameras in that room. If Peter Jennings were alive today, he would not have been granted access to the events and conversations and ideas taking place and taking form in that room, the same events, conversations, and ideas that a person like me, among hundreds of thousands of others, had immediate access to based on something as arbitrary as clicking “Follow” on Pete Hoekstra’s Twitter page.

These instances of ‘over-sharing,’ if they can be called that in a moment of clemency, are hardly isolated. And when this oversharing of information is done by the men and women elected into positions in the United States government, the breach of protocol becomes even more troubling.

Social Media Significance: Erosion of “the Record”

There was a time when remarks that were off the record were strictly off the record. Granted, there are always mishaps and lapses in judgment. But the nature of such lapses is changing due to the immediate and easy access to information and ideas as well as the fluidity of communication engendered by new social media platforms we see today.

With sites like Twitter and Facebook, it’s incredibly easy to jot down the first thing that comes into your head and click Submit/Share. And, as we’ve seen, that ease of communication can and has gotten a lot of individuals in trouble. Barack Obama’s comment was off-record and partially in jest (at least, what followed it); it’s not appropriate to blame him for much in this situation. A president is, above all else, still a human being with his own thoughts and opinions. And, call it a crazy quirk, but we generally tend to want to express our thoughts and opinions. Obama presumed he was just casually chatting with a couple news correspondents off the record before his big interview and offered an honest take on the situation. It was hardly his fault that a reporter showed a (somewhat understandable) lapse of judgment and tweeted it, kind of as a knee-jerk reaction to hearing something note- or news-worthy. And that’s why the poll currently up on the TMZ website, asking whether Obama’s remarks were inappropriate or earned him a “way to go!”, seems so out of place and misguided.

In coloring the remark as ‘inappropriate,’ the words are treated as if they were on the record, which they simply weren’t. A president has official opinions, found in his speeches and interviews, etc, and unofficial opinions, like what kind of mustard he likes (dijon), what his favorite baseball team is (Chicago White Sox), and what he thinks, as a private citizen, of Kanye West, another private citizen (jackass). The remark was in no way meant to be public, and to censure as ‘inappropriate’ something that was privately said between a small group of men is just ridiculous.

This is a prime example of how social media services like Twitter and Facebook are progressively eroding our concept of what “the record” is. The record used to refer to official remarks, statements, documents, etc, that were usually distributed through print media or televised directly to the viewers. With the advent of Twitter, specifically, anyone within two feet of the President can relate what he’s saying, with very little regard for whether it’s on or off the record.

I remember when SCOTUS Justice Scalia visited my school last fall, I tweeted or Facebook’d a couple things he said that were said in jest and conversation, and were definitely not part of his prepared remarks. I may have also tweeted that he was a noisy eater. Who knows with me? I can’t be trusted.

When dissemination of information, specifically statements from our elected officials, becomes so easy as to be almost effortless if you’re in the right place at the right time, our concept of the sanctity of the record takes a considerable hit.

What can you, the average person, tweet when you’re in conversation with someone in a position of power? Can you tweet points from their speeches? Can you tweet intangibles, like the tenor of their speech, not the content? Can you tweet a remark you overheard when the person was talking to someone else? A remark that was made to you directly?

These questions all discount the knee-jerk reaction to quickly relate what you’ve just heard or just seen. It’s happened to everyone: some events, some quotes, are simply too good not to pass along. I have to imagine that’s what was going through Terry Moran’s head when he heard the “jackass” comment. The country has the image of Obama as a real cool customer, always eloquent, always sage, always solemn, his blood never rising to room temperature except when he needs to show us that flash of passion and heat and ire to get us to focus when something is serious.

The jackass remark, in contrast, showed the President as someone you could have a beer with and maybe indulge in some light trash-talking with. And, as previous polls have shown, Americans like their elected officials not to be stuffed shirts, but to be the kind of guys they could have a beer with….even if it’s to everyone’s detriment.

Is this the give and take we have to resign ourselves to in this new age of social media? We lose the primacy of the record, that time-honored concept, but we inch closer to getting a more honest look at the individuals our leaders or celebrities genuinely are? Is there even any way to pull back from this uncomfortable tug-of-war altogether?

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely. Instead, we will very likely see more instances of such over-sharing in the future – the very near future, possibly. Twitter is still enjoying tremendous, even exponential, growth. Other forms of social media are active and gaining in popularity as well. Aside from being unable to control our own impulses with regard to tweeting something we probably wouldn’t if we waited and thought about it for ten seconds (such as all those comments from closed door meetings), we’ll be dealing with individuals who are fortunate enough to come into direct personal contact with leading officials and persons of note…and immediately reach for their cell phones or their netbooks to let the world in on the moment.

Without taking proper preventive measures, our idea of the sanctified record from which publications may not stray is likely to be further and further eroded.

Future Ramifications and Safeguards

1984Without borrowing too heavily from 1984, this lightning-fast dissemination of information is already proving to be very problematic for our elected leadership, and the problem will only get worse.

When?

The first issue to tackle seems to be whether or not certain moments are appropriate for tweeting. There was a small uproar during the first State of the Union address of President Obama’s administration when Congressmen around the room had their Blackberrys out and appeared to be busier fiddling with them than listening to the President. Several news correspondents wondered aloud what the Congressmen could possibly think they were doing, and fielded calls from puzzled and irritated viewers wondering the same thing, until it was explained that the men and women were posting updates on their Twitters.

The reaction was two-fold: there was an evident fascination and wary approval of being able to read the thoughts and impressions of individuals standing just a few feet from the President during his historic address. However, there was evident wariness of whether the tweeting was in good taste or reflected good manners.

Important events on Capital Hill are televised on stations like C-Span, and occasionally on the major networks, and the camera often pans around to allow the viewer to see the men and women in the audience. As far as social media relates to our elected officials, there first need to be designated rules about when tweeting is appropriate. For example, tweeting during an event like the White House Correspondents Association Dinner might be more appropriate than tweeting during a State of the Union address. The tenor of the event taking place would be the determining factor in such decisions, presumably. Hopefully?

Who?

Another important issue focuses on the author of the tweets. The twit, I like to call him or her. It was Shaquille O’Neal who, during the course of an interview, said that twitter only allowed 140 characters, and that if celebrities needed someone to do that for them, he just plain felt sorry for them.

I used to share his views on ghost-twits. I still do, to a certain extent, but perhaps ghost-twits aren’t such a  bad idea when it comes to politicians on Twitter. It’s well known that Barack Obama doesn’t actually write his own tweets, and that system works perfectly well and is understandable: after all, the sitting President has more pressing concerns, like health care, the economy, equal rights, the environment, etc, than what he can say in 140 characters or less.

But for the congressmen that represent us all, Twitter has proven to be an excellent way to get their platforms out there and connect with their constituents. Some do it quite well, and have enjoyed increased popularity just by building their personal brand on Twitter; that is, by infusing their tweets with their personality, their humor, things they’re passionate about, and so on, instead of just using canned statements. After Jackass-Gate, it doesn’t seem inappropriate to include national news correspondents in this category as well.

There must be a happy medium between letting congressmen tweet their personalities and making sure the tweets adhere to standards of professionalism. The most efficient way to do this would be to turn Twitter privileges over to a handler or advisor, even a trusted assistant that would effectively serve as a middleman. The congressmen could send their proposed tweets to the handler/advisor by text (coincidentally, also limited to 140-160 characters in length, the model from which Twitter was inspired) and the handler-cum-pseudo-ghost-twit could make any necessary corrections and post the message to the individual account.

This process would ensure that tweets stayed appropriate (not necessarily only about politics, but excluding facially offensive or contentious or off-color comments) and put forth a favorable image of the congressman to his or her constituents, while allowing that individual to maintain some control over his or her account. Tweets about the best sushi place in DC? Approved and posted. Tweets about Joe Biden having a very visible booger in his nose? Not so much.

What?

Handing posting privileges of an account over to a handler would go a long way in controlling what is posted on the account, but in the event that a congressman or other elected official maintains singular control over his or her account (or even if not; it still works), there need to be rules about what can be posted.

This is the necessary step in reclaiming ‘the Record’ that is a pillar of honest journalism. The big question is, how? Obviously, common sense and good judgment can’t be relied on in this situation. Having a handler manage the account mitigates the harm somewhat, but the information disseminated would still be at the discretion of another person, another person who may very well suffer the same occasional (or frequent) lapse of good judgment.

So is reinstating the record in the new age of social media a lost cause? Have we simply come too far in the opposite direction to be able to go back? Would going too far back be a disservice to the freedoms we enjoy in this country, the freedom to say what we want and read what we want without the government being able to interfere? (To some an arguable point – I’m sure many have a bone to pick with this sentiment, but just go with it for now.) Is there any way to play the balancing game here beyond simply adding another person to the tweeting chain and hoping for the best? Will Terry Moran’s breach be a cautionary tale for a month or so before another lapse by another reporter is made? And more, with increasing frequency? Is there any way to undo one of the greatest perceived benefits of social media?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. The outcome remains to be seen.

tweletedEdit/Undo/Delete/Whoops/Oh Crap

Mistakes happen. You’re a Congressman that hates Nancy Pelosi, so you tell your followers to go watch football instead of seeing her smirk for an hour. You’re super excited to be in a foreign country that we’re currently at war with, so you tweet your exact locations. You’re part of a closed door meeting discussing one of the most important economic recovery acts of the century and, gosh, you just can’t sit on the new information about the budget and the stimulus. Or, you’re just a few interns short of a full staff. (Same as being a few beans short of a salad.)

Thanks to websites like Tweleted, tweets are never actually lost. Tweets can be deleted, but they can never truly be gone. Once tweeted, the damage is done. Especially when you’re an elected official with at least a couple hundred thousand followers, several of which are most likely news correspondents who have interns trolling for any updates to discuss.

So what happens when an elected official tweets something inappropriate? Something racist? Something patently offensive? Something….while under the influence? What should happen?

Mistakes are magnified when those in the spotlight make them. 50% of marriages end in divorce, but when it’s a celebrity couple getting divorced, their affairs (literal/figurative as the case may be) are picked apart with a fine-tooth comb. When a blogger or pundit makes a snarky remark about an elected official, it’s no big deal; when an elected official makes the same remark about a colleague, it’s big news because it breaks that air of professionalism and integrity and composure we like to (erroneously, oftentimes) associate with our politicians.

Sometimes, the humiliation of having that tweet printed in every newspaper or magazine, on every blog, and repeated on every radio and television station is enough of a deterrent.

But what other deterrent methods can be implemented to curb rabid foot-in-mouth (or…finger-on-typepad?) disease? The big news currently is the House resolution to admonish Joe Wilson for his outburst during one of the most important speeches of President Obama’s presidency. Are there any conceivable tweets for which an elected official should be similarly admonished? For example, it is not permissible by House rules to call the president “intellectually dishonest” or a hypocrite, or discuss his “sexual misconduct,” (we got your back, Bubba!) but it is permissible to call his message “a disgrace to the country.” It is permissible to call our government “something hated and/or oppressive;”  it is also permissible to call unnamed officials “our half-baked nitwits handling foreign affairs.” It is unacceptable, however, to call a presidential veto “cowardly,” or to accuse a president’s actions of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”

dickcheneyCan you imagine if anyone among our congressmen had accused former President George W. Bush of that last one? He’d have had Rummy shank them…or had Cheney straight-up shoot them in the face. (Similar to how Grammar Girl would want to shank me for that hideous grammar, but in my defense, the proper way sounds clunky and Al-Gore-ish, and that don’t win no elections! Or readers!)

But even these guidelines on what House members can and can’t say aren’t as clear as they might have once been. A congressman can’t call the president’s policy intellectually dishonest, but can he tweet that? “@JoeSixPackCongressman: House Resolution 298425, Reduced Bus Fare for War Widows, is intellectually dishonest.”) What if he tweets it from the privacy of his own home, while he’s in his jams and watching his stories? What if he tweets it during a televised event like a State of the Union address? What if he writes it on the wall of the official DCCC Facebook page? What if he just writes it on Chris Matthews’s private Facebook page, on his wall?

I’m being intentionally and intellectually facetious, but my intention is to illustrate how many new forks in the road social media has added to what used to be a relatively simple concept.

The bottom line is that with the advent of social media, we’ve seen a steady erosion of the bastion of journalism integrity, the record. The line between what is on the record and what is decidedly off-record has been obscured with the ability of the everyman (Joe Six-Pack American, UnRegistered Plumber, if you will) to share everything he hears or sees, so much so that even trained journalists are unknowingly letting their guard down and committing similar missteps.

For Joe Six-Pack America, such a misstep is no big deal. If you tweet about how much you hate your boss, you can delete it without too many people seeing it, and your boss doesn’t have the manpower or wherewithal to monitor your feed for any new additions or retractions.

But when our elected officials and our reporters make such a misstep, the repercussions are far-reaching and long-lasting. (Relatively.) The precise steps needed to curb our habit of over-sharing on a national, political level are unknown, but it is clear that changes need to be made and protocol needs to be determined. With our luck, Congress will take the next few weeks to create Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Other (catch-all provision) committees with sub-committees on Abbreviations, Numbers Standing In As Letters, Emoticons, At Replies, Direct Messages, Facebook Pokes, Like and/or Unlike, and What Does LOL Mean?, using tax payer money that no one has. Not even the tax payers.

I leave you with a FAKE (read: doctored) Twitter feed for your amusement. Read this top-to-bottom. I know Twitter goes in reverse-chronological order, but it was so much less time-consuming to make this to read with a downward scroll motion.

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