Calgary mayor and social media aficionado Naheed Nenshi recently found himself in the news not for his policies or his well-known public debates he often engages in on Twitter, but because of an off-handed comment to a known detractor about the gentleman being “off his meds”. And just like that, Mayor Nenshi is being pounced on by detractors, mental health professionals and other observers calling on him to apologize – which he did.
Over the weekend I was reading an article in the Toronto Star by the good folks at CGI Group, Michael Ras and Denise Brunsdon, on how politicians aren’t using social media correctly. In Michael and Denise’s view, by sticking to scripted talking points and wooden pronouncements on family activities, they are missing out on actually connecting with real people, real voters; people who don’t eat sleep and breath politics.
They aren’t wrong. But Nenshi’s encounter will most certainly cast a chill over the political Twitterverse. And over somewhat of a non-issue: who hasn’t said someone is “off their meds”? The phase is a common term meaning someone is talking or acting irrationally. As a result, I can see a whole community of candidates reaching for the delete button over at Twitter. “If Naheed Nenshi can get in trouble on Twitter, I better not say ANYTHING!”, says the poor candidate. Or something to that effect.
My point is this: we certainly have an epidemic of boring Twitter accounts from our elected officials, but it isn’t entirely without good reason. As a representative from Calgary’s mental heath community stated: “the mayor should be held accountable to a higher level.” To a large extent, all candidates and incumbents are held to a higher level.
These folks know that. I’ve counselled a number of them and they are absolutely petrified about being on the front page of the local paper over a Tweet. I happen to be of the view that if you are known for being authentic in person and when you use social media, you get a fair amount of license to speak candidly. It’s the politicos who “accidentally” speak their minds that tend to get judged the harshest in these situations.
So, while we wish every politician would tell us what was really on their mind, cut them a little slack. The Internet, especially in political circles, is a harsh and unforgiving terrain. Everything said is catalogued, reviewed and dissected. If we want politicians to open up on Twitter and elsewhere, the best move for the public-at-large is to give kudos to Mayor Nenshi for being so open and transparent in relating his thoughts online – especially when he “slips up”.
When our elected officials know that we social media users understand they are only human and applaud when they are honest and direct about their thoughts and opinions – even when we disagree with them – we might see an improvement in the national online political discourse.
Otherwise, it’s another helping of warmed over talking points.