‘Politics not done by tweets’? Could have fooled me...

Matteo Salvini’s tweets somehow manage to combine the inane narcissism of a tourist taking a selfie

“Politics is not done by tweets, but through persuasion.” Thus spoke Joseph Muscat during his weekly One Radio Interview last Sunday... even though, by my count, he himself resorted to Twitter no fewer than 15 times since then (not counting all the times he tweeted on the same day as that interview: which would add another seven tweets to the list). And I need hardly add that all those tweets, without exception, were about politics.

Makes you wonder how Joseph Muscat finds the time to actually engage in any ‘persuasion’, in between one tweet and another. His most recent tweet was uploaded one hour ago. The one before that, three hours ago. So if he keeps up his current rate of tweetery, by the time I finish this article there should be at least another two more. Not bad, for a politician who also believes that ‘Twitter’ is not, in fact, an ideal platform for political statements.

I suppose this means it’s one of those rare occasions where you can both agree and disagree with someone at the same time. He would have been more precise to state that ‘politics should not be done by tweets’... but Muscat is clearly right that Twitter makes a terrible medium for politics. And Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini – who was the target of that remark – is in fact a very good example of precisely why.

The skill involved in using Twitter is virtually identical to the basic skill of any copy- or sub-editor. Like the choice of a newspaper headline, it consists in being able to succinctly reduce a sentiment and/or opinion into a limited number of characters. The more complex the sentiment or opinion, the harder the task.

Matteo Salvini: Combining inane narcissism with the gravitas of a chipmunk in one tweet
Matteo Salvini: Combining inane narcissism with the gravitas of a chipmunk in one tweet

Even just from my own experience with newspapers, I can attest to the fact that some people are natural born sub-editors, while others are very emphatically not. Salvini would fall into the latter category. His tweets somehow manage to combine the inane narcissism of a tourist taking a selfie – like the one where he photographed himself on a bridge, and reassured viewers that the boat behind him was not full of ‘clandestini’ – with the political depth and gravitas of a chipmunk. In fact, I sometimes wonder if he really is as stupid as he comes across in that medium; or whether it’s just a case that he has no idea how to actually use it.

Because that’s another aspect that makes ‘Twitter’ a singularly dangerous tool for the unsuspecting politician. Personally, I have always suspected that the name itself was chosen precisely because ‘tweets’ very often make their ‘tweeters’ look like utter ‘twits’. This is true outside of politics, too: there was a case recently where a young woman on her way to Africa tweeted: ‘Hope I don’t get AIDs. But hey, what I am worried about? I’m white!’ By the time she landed at her destination, she had already lost her job.

The incident attracted some press coverage, and according to those who knew her well, the woman in question was nowhere as thunderingly dim-witted as that one throwaway comment seemed to imply. Yet somehow, an otherwise intelligent person could thoughtlessly post something as inflammatory at that – to be seen by a global audience of millions – without seemingly even pausing to consider the possible consequences.

I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but something tells me this sort of rash impulsiveness has something to do with the medium itself: it is as though the ability to instantly transmit a message to millions of people, at the simple click of a mouse, leads people to want to do it instantly.... just because they can.

In effect, this is the opposite of the approach one would use when writing anything serious: like a newspaper article, or a political statement. Ideally you want at least a little time to go over what you’ve written first. You wouldn’t send off an article for printing without at least having it proofread; yet many people (myself included, when using social media) tend to automatically forgo that part in favour of haste. They type the whole sentence out, and simply hit ‘enter’ almost as a substitute for a ‘full-stop’.

And... pouff! It’s gone. Your sentence has been launched into social media orbit, where it will be retweeted and reposted, commented upon and dissected, and in brief take on an entire new existence of its own... without any control on your own part. Not exactly difficult to see why so many politicians, all over the world, tend to get into such trouble over random, thoughtless ‘tweets’.

This brings me to the part where I disagree with Joseph Muscat. His message to Salvini was contradicted not just by his own penchant for tweeting; but by his party’s entire social media strategy, which seems to consist of very little but a single, giant ‘Twitter account’ (and a tonne of money spent on Facebook ads).

Jason Micallef: What was passing through his mind when he used Daphne Caruana Galizia's last words in a Facebook joke?
Jason Micallef: What was passing through his mind when he used Daphne Caruana Galizia's last words in a Facebook joke?

I need hardly add that what applies to Salvini, applies just as well to local, equally ‘mouse-button happy’ tweeters. As with the ‘white woman who went to Africa’, I have often wondered what was passing through Jason Micallef’s mind, when he uploaded a Facebook joke based on Daphne Caruana Galizia’s last words. Did he really not expect any backlash? Was he surprised when the town of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands – Valletta’s twin ‘European Capital of Culture’ – howled in outrage, and discontinued its association with Valletta?

To me, it looks as though Micallef momentarily treated Facebook as if it were a private messaging service, and he was circulating a group SMS among close friends. I got the same impression about former PN secretary general Paul Borg Olivier, when (admittedly a while back) he tweeted a joke about Michelle Muscat’s tits. ... for all the world as though the global ‘Me Too’ movement never actually happened, and the entire world would react with little more than a shrug and a ‘boys will be boys’.

Sorry, folks, but that world no longer exists; and once again I suspect it has something to do with media like Facebook and Twitter. Just as instant communication seems to have reformatted people into ‘tweet first, think later’ mode... it has also given rise to an entire culture of instant outrage and indignation (not to mention instant lynch-mobs, as we all saw in the case of Apple Eye’s cat).  Yet another good reason, I would think, for politicians to approach such platforms with extreme caution.

Jason Azzopardi and Pierre Portelli: Twitter war on a Times editorial
Jason Azzopardi and Pierre Portelli: Twitter war on a Times editorial

But...that’s not what they’re doing, is it? As I write this, a whole new ‘Twitter war’ has just erupted between Jason Azzopardi and Pierre Portelli (PN MP and media co-ordinator respectively), who counter each other tweet-for-tweet over an editorial in The Times.   Azzopardi agrees with The Times’s take – i.e., that ‘WAGS’ such as Michelle Muscat and Nickie Vella Defremaux shouldn’t complain about their children being bullied on account of their parents’ political positions – and took umbrage when Portelli described the same editorial as ‘pathetic’.

Within no time at all, OPM’s Kurt Farrugia nosedived into the fray: seizing on Azzopardi’s description of The Times as a ‘faithful (!) and powerful medium for [the PN’s] the message to get across’.

At a glance, there is so much wrong with this spat that I scarce know where to even begin. Azzopardi and Portelli seem to forget that they happen to militate within the same party; and that by snapping at each other’s heels like that, they are only making a public spectacle out of the disintegration of the PN.   Even the tweets themselves are about as well-planned and polished as Donald Trump’s speech at the recent Russia summit. Azzopardi might have intended the word ‘faithful’ to mean ‘honest’ – as in, The Times would not ‘misquote’ or ‘misrepresent’ the PN. But he can’t have thought the wording through very properly: anyone ill-disposed towards him, his party or The Times (like, for instance, Kurt Farrugia) would automatically take him to mean that the newspaper is a mouthpiece for the PN. And the most he can answer to that is: ‘Oops, sorry, I ‘misspoke’.”

Worst of all, the spat in itself is over a needless and pointless controversy that should never have arisen in the first place. To keep it alive, at this stage, is only to deepen a rift that the Nationalist Party should be trying its utmost to heal. That, incidentally, also explains Kurt Farrugia’s instant involvement. It is in the Labour Party’s interest for the PN to continue dismembering itself; Azzopardi and Portelli seem hell-bent on helping their supposedly common adversary to destroy their own party.

Would any of these glaring mistakes have been made, had those two chosen to face each other in a televised debate, instead of slogging it out on Twitter? I somehow doubt it. For some reason, having a camera on you makes you instantly aware that you have an audience: it puts brakes on what you say, and how you say it. Furiously hammering away at a keyboard, on your own in front of a computer, seems to have the opposite effect. It makes you act as though there’s nobody listening but the other tweeter, giving you licence to sound as perfectly idiotic as you please.

Twitter: The platform that dominates on Maltese political affairs
Twitter: The platform that dominates on Maltese political affairs

Yet it is this platform – Twitter: so eminently unsuited to political debate – that now dominates all public discourse on Maltese political affairs. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the debate itself has also been condensed and reduced, as if to fit into some imaginary ‘maximum-character’ limit. In fact, we no longer ever ‘discuss’ anything at all; political debate has been substituted for an exchange of online insults.

Call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to talking about serious matters that affect people’s day-to-day business (as politics should do, but – once again, because of the medium – hasn’t done for a while now) I still prefer the good old days of parliamentary debates, televised discussions, interviews, in-depth articles and speeches from a podium.

Complex, relevant matters cannot be restricted to a maximum of 140 characters, without losing both their complexity and their relevance. Our choice of ‘Twitter’ for such matters has only made twits of us all.

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