Tweeter Beware

Anthony Weiner isn't the only politician who needs a lesson in Twitter-etiquette.

Campaign website; Twitter icon; Win McNamee/Getty Images; GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images; PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Image; STEVE TERRILL/AFP/Getty Image
Campaign website; Twitter icon; Win McNamee/Getty Images; GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images; PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Image; STEVE TERRILL/AFP/Getty Image


The tweeter: Candidate for provincial parliament in Niagara Falls, Canada, from the Progressive Conservative Party.

The tweet: A close-up photo of a man's genitals.


The tweeter: Candidate for provincial parliament in Niagara Falls, Canada, from the Progressive Conservative Party.

The tweet: A close-up photo of a man’s genitals.

The fallout: One thing is known for sure in the scandal some are calling the Canadian Weinergate: For about 20 minutes on the night of Saturday, May 28, the lewd photo appeared on Lepp’s Twitter account before it was noticed by his son, who administers the feed, and taken down. (Not before it was obtained by the Toronto Sun, however.) A spokesman for Lepp’s party initially seemed to suggest that the photo had been taken inadvertently while his cell phone was on camera mode in his front pocket.

Lepp and the Conservatives later denied this implausible explanation, saying instead that his phone had been stolen by attendees at an anime convention that was being held in the same hotel where he was giving a speech. (Despite the theft of his phone and the posting of the photos, however, Lepp never contacted the police.) Lepp says he is now trying to move on with his campaign, though it might be wise to let his son vet all outgoing tweets from here on out.


The tweeter: British councilor for Erdington in the Birmingham city government.

The tweet: “Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really. #R5L”

The fallout: The Tory councilor posted this comment in Nov. 2010 after listening to a Radio 5 Live (R5L) interview with Alibhai-Brown, a prominent newspaper columnist, in which she argued that any British politician who supported the Iraq war lacked the moral authority to criticize human rights abuses in other countries. Compton quickly deleted the comment, describing it as an “ill-conceived attempt at humour.” But Alibhai, a Muslim of Indian descent, was not satisfied with Compton’s apology, describing his initial remark as “incitement to murder” and “racially motivated.” Compton was arrested on charges of hate speech and suspended from the Conservative Party.  

Perhaps he should have listened to his party leader, now Prime Minister David Cameron, who warned in 2009 that “The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it — too many twits might make a twat.” (Actually, Cameron had to apologize for that comment as well.)


The tweeter: Then U.S. representative from Ohio

The tweet: “Just landed in Baghdad”

The fallout: As a former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Hoekstra was routinely expected to keep sensitive information secret. So it was particularly bizarre in Feb. 2009, when he tweeted his arrival in Baghdad, along with a delegation led by House GOP leader John Boehner, on a trip that news outlets had been specifically requested to keep secret for security reasons.

Hoekstra didn’t stop there, continuing to tweet details of the delegation’s itinerary — “Moved into green zone by helicopter Iraqi flag now over palace. Headed to new US embassy. Appears calmer less chaotic than previous here” — every few hours. Thankfully, Hoekstra doesn’t seem to have had any insurgents as followers.


The tweeter: Prime minister of Belgium.

The tweet: “Not at all. Want to learn to know you. You to?”

The fallout: Leterme wrote, and then quickly deleted, the cryptic, broken-English message while traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgium. The prime minister followed up the message with an explanation saying the tweet had been meant for a “correspondent” he had met at a reception, continuing: “It must be the heat. :-)”

The Belgian media speculated that the married Leterme may have been flirting with someone, but Leterme denied this — sort of — telling journalists that the “message was not addressed to a woman but to a man.” The main damage may be to Leterme’s claim to be fluent in English.


The tweeter: Former Indian minister of state for external affairs.

The tweet: “Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows.”

The fallout: Tharoor, a former under-secretary general of the United Nations and widely read columnist and author, was something of a pioneer among Indian politicians using Twitter, and today he boasts more than a million followers. But the feed has gotten him into trouble on occasion as well, such as when he made the above comment in response to a question about whether he would ride “cattle class” on the train as part of a government austerity drive. (Tharoor had recently been asked by the party to move out of a five-star hotel where he had been staying for over three months.)  The remark was seen as not only elitist but mocking his own party’s policies. Tharoor was reprimanded by the party and disciplinary action was considered, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh later dismissed the comment as “a joke.”  

A twitter revelation of a different kind proved more damaging to Tharoor in 2010 when the head of India’s cricket league tweeted out a list of the owners of a new team in Kochi, which included a female friend of Tharoor who had allegedly received a free stake in the franchise through his political maneuvers. Tharoor denied wrongdoing but was forced to resign as foreign minister. He still sits in Parliament, though, and regularly updates his Twitter feed.


The tweeter: President of Rwanda

The tweets:

@ianbirrell: No-one in media, UN or human rights groups has the moral right to criticise me, says despotic & deluded @PaulKagame 

@ianbirrell: Kagame refused to even answer if he is a religious believer. When asked, he replied ‘Yes and no.’ 

@paulkagame: @ianbirrell. Not you either…no moral right! You give yourslf the right to abuse pple and judge them like you r the one to decide … 

@paulkagame: @ianbirrell….and determine universally what s right or wrong and what shd be believed or not!!! Wrong u r …u have no such right .. 

The fallout: The Rwandan president may not quite have realized what he was getting himself into when he engaged in a back and forth on his controversial human rights record with British journalist Ian Birrell. The heated exchange was an almost unprecedented interaction between a journalist and a sitting head of state. Birrell repeatedly pressed Kagame to explain why he thought human rights groups had no right to criticize him and the president continually countered that Birrell’s understanding of the human rights situation in Rwanda was flawed. Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo also got into the discussion, sticking up for her boss.

At the end of the discussion Birrell concluded, “It is great @PaulKagame engaging with a critic like me on Twitter. Just shame he doesn’t allow such debate in Rwanda with his own people.”

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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