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Welcome to the internet, Joan. And you thought Jobstown was bad?


Joan Burton

Joan Burton

Joan Burton

Has the person who advised Labour leader Joan Burton to launch the #TalkToJoan campaign last week ever actually used Twitter? Has he or she heard, for example, of Robin Thicke?

The American soul singer was once advised that he should take part in an similar interactive #AskThicke event, the idea being that fans could use the hashtag to send him questions directly and the singer would then answer them.

Thousands did just that, though not quite in the way that his handlers intended. It led to one of the funniest mass trollings of a celebrity in recent social media history, as people took the opportunity to fire questions at the "Blurred Lines" singer over his attitude to women.

"Did you really write a rape anthem as a love song for your wife," went one, "and are you still wondering why she left you?"

Another enquired: "When you're not objectifying women, how do you like to relax?"

It was, one tweeter summed it up, a "sign that publicity people have no idea what the **** they're doing in an age of hashtags".

Hashtags are much more easily hijacked than traditional campaigns which maintain a greater distance between the great and the good on the one side and the great unwashed on the other. Normally a tweet will only be seen by the relatively small number of people who follow that particular account. By attaching a tweet to a trending hashtag, it potentially reaches far more people, offering an opportunity for much greater mischief.

That's exactly what happened to the Labour leader. The pun on "Talk To Joe", the tagline for RTE's Liveline, probably seemed irresistible, but people who are handsomely paid to come up with these ideas should have foreseen the dangers. Someone in the back-room Labour team - come on, hands up, who was it? - even got Joan Burton to pose on a sofa in the grounds of the Merrion hotel with a placard bearing the hashtag.

Anyone with an ounce of wit should have known what would happen next, which was that the picture was circulated with the real slogan removed and new words added for comic effect, including one that read pithily: "F*** off, peasants".

Some of the messages sent to the #TalkToJoan hashtag were viscerally offensive, which prompted some of the tinfoil-hat brigade on Twitter to declare that the stunt had been deliberately designed to provoke a tsunami of slander that would give Labour an excuse to support legislation shutting down social media. As if that would work.

Former Labour guru Fergus Finlay quickly fell into the trap by complaining, like King Canute, at the "trolling and dog's abuse" which Burton was receiving.

Away from the insults, there were plenty of others taking the opportunity to raise genuine concerns about government policy, while some, such as mimic Oliver Callan, simply had fun with the hashtag. Some of the best contributions came from tweeter Gareth Soye, who sent a series of deliciously cheeky questions, including: "If you added up all the days of real work union leaders have ever done, would you get to double figures?" And: "If you had a gun with one bullet and knew you weren't going to jail, who would it be - Rabbitte or Gilmore?"

Had Joan found the divilment to answer some of these questions, it might have worked in her favour, but politicians are too terrified of social media to engage with it directly. They still think they can manage it at arm's length, and they can't. In this world, politicians are the amateurs. If they're going to try and use social media as a political tool, then at least make the effort to understand the medium.

This exercise just smacked of paying lip service to new media, which is what made it ripe for satire. Getting the internet so spectacularly wrong makes politicians look more out of touch than if they stayed away from it altogether.

That's before even exploring the political risks in being so desperate to hop on the social media bandwagon that you start mistaking online idiosyncrasies for real life.

It sounds an obvious thing to say, but social media is not representative of public opinion. It is reflective only of the narrow, though loudly expressed, opinions of a self-selecting group who use it.

Before the recent general election in the UK, Labour supporters managed to make the hashtag #milifandom, a campaign started by a teenage fan to celebrate leader Ed Miliband, into a huge internet phenomenon. He still didn't win. If anything, such ethereal media successes blinded Labour strategists to the campaign's deeper fractures.

Political leaders are fond of launching these elaborate consultation exercises with the general public, because it makes it look as if they're listening. In Bertie Ahern's day, it was all about starting "national conversations". He wanted one about that old chestnut, "what it means to be Irish". Yawn.

Around the same time, Tony Blair was declaring his own desire for a "Big Conversation" with voters, launching a website where users could partake in crucial debates such as: "How important is the euro in locking in macroeconomic stability?" Forgive them. It was 2006. Things were different then.

The Constitutional Convention was another impotent talking shop designed to look like a two-way dialogue. Hashtags are merely the latest snazzy incarnation

People need to know that their politicians are leading, not merely listening. One of the lessons of the UK election was that the Liberal Democrats were punished by voters because they tried to have it both ways, taking credit for the successes of the coalition government in which they were the smaller party, while distancing themselves from the government's failures and trying to imply that voters should be grateful to them for restraining the Tories from further excesses of austerity.

Sound familiar? This is exactly the current strategy of the Labour Party in Ireland. Pursuing it leaves Fine Gael free to run unapologetically on what it regards as the administration's successes, while letting their junior partners mop up all the blame for any mistakes by drawing attention to them.

Someone in Labour should really #TalkToJoan about that.

Sunday Independent