It’s Time for Mandatory Social Media Training for Public Officials

In 2016 social media is as essential and ubiquitous as the cellphones many use to access those platforms. For most people in my generation, a day without data is like a day in hell.

The new hierarchy of Pavlov's needs. Source: Capitalogix
The new hierarchy of Pavlov’s needs. Source: Capitalogix

1.5 billion people on Facebook. 400 million on Instagram. 300 million on Twitter. We’re all so happy to be connected. Yet the constant connection ascribes an immediacy and permanence to our communication that was not possible in previous eras. While letters can be rewritten, and errors on a phone call can be quickly corrected, everything we put on the internet is forever. Nevermind that the US Library of Congress is archiving all our tweets; even the messages that we ‘delete’ exist in the internet ether somewhere, waiting to be retrieved and used for or against us, as the case may be.

Given the catastrophic results that can come from one errant tweet (Remember Justine Sacco, and , and the dude that lost his job last week because he cursed at and about Steph Curry’s family?), it behooves us to think twice before posting. My current rule of thumb which I am probably failing at is that I only share things on social media that I wouldn’t mind being put on a billboard somewhere.

No, it was not always like this. I joined Facebook in 2005 when it was a year old, and limited to college students. There was an intimacy associated with getting on Facebook to share college memories with your peers, and a false sense of safety because we believed we were the only ones who had access. A decade later, and we’re all wary of Facebook’s privacy settings, and hopefully wise enough to know nothing is safe there anymore, if it ever was. Similarly, most of my early tweets were from my then-private account, and were usually a result of me wasting time during class (Sorry, mom!). I’m still trying to recondition my brain not to post anything truly personal on Twitter now that my account is unlocked.

As much as I value a distinction between personal and public space, I’m realizing it’s less and less possible. It’s nice to think that our work and personal lives are completely separate. But for many of us, that’s not entirely true. While social media gives us a nonpareil opportunity for branding on a large scale, it works as a two-way window, which some seem to forget.

So today we’re dealing with a misguided tweet from Jamaica’s Attorney General, Marlene Malahoo-Forte. The Harvard-educated Queen’s Counsel is no doubt a brilliant woman, and a respected public servant. I don’t mean to question her intellect, or her value to the nation, but rather her judgment in sending out this tweet in response to the US embassy in Kingston flying the rainbow flag at half-mast in recognition of the recent massacre in Orlando.

US Embassy tweet
The initial tweet from the US Embassy: “Our flag at half-mast in memory; we fly the rainbow flag in solidarity. Thx u to all Jamaicans sending condolences.”


Marlene Malahoo-Forte's tweet in question
Marlene Malahoo-Forte’s tweet in question: “I strongly condemn #OrlandoNightClubShooting but find it disrespectful of Jamaica’s laws to have #RainbowFlag flown here. #MyPersonalView”

Firstly, as the AG, she is constitutionally mandated to be “the principal legal adviser to the Government of Jamaica.” As our foremost attorney, she is aware that homosexuality is not a crime in Jamaica. While buggery remains a criminal act, buggery is not exclusive to homosexuals. Further, someone can identify as LGBTQIA and not engage in buggery, or any other form of penetrative sex. So what Jamaican laws (she pluralized, not me) is the rainbow flag disrespecting?

 Again, as the AG, she also knows that the grounds of the US embassy are legally viewed as American. Embassies are the territories of the countries they represent, not the host. As such, if the US Embassy employees want to be disrespectful of the non-existent laws to which she alludes, they can. That’s the price we pay for having the embassy there. Being that she is a high-ranking political official, Twitter is not an appropriate forum for her to challenge this international legal policy.

 This brings me to the third point: How undiplomatic is it for a government official to be making a thinly-veiled homophobic statement in the wake of a mass murder? Would she stand in front of President Obama and say the same? If not, why tweet it? In international fora, how does she distinguish between what is appropriate to say, and what is not? As I tweeted earlier, as a public official, her actions carry the weight of her title.

In fact, the addition of the hashtag “#MyPersonalView” suggests that she knew there would be backlash, but wanted to absolve herself of any professional penalty. But given the seniority of her position, no one stops thinking of her as AG when she goes home at night. None of us are distinguishing between daytime tweets, and nighttime tweets. She is free to hold this view, but if it does not align with the decorum of the office she holds, and the laws she is supposed to be uphold, it would be more appropriate to write it in her journal.

And for those who want to argue that she is preserving Jamaican culture, as homophobic as we may be, we know better than this. While I am now pro-LGBT rights, I certainly was not always that way, nor was I specifically raised that way. But nothing in my Jamaican culture taught me that I should advance such rhetoric as people continue to mourn scores of lost and injured lives. Even if she personally disagrees with homosexuality, for whatever reason, now is not the time to voice such opposition from her public twitter account, and attach it to the Orlando shooting. Her right to free speech does not mean that we cannot comment on her inappropriateness, and it must be mitigated by her duties as a government official.

We are lucky to have some young Jamaican politicians who use social media relatively well: Dayton Campbell, Lisa Hanna, and more recently, our Prime Minister Andrew Holness come to mind. But we cannot continue to leave these matters to chance. If politicians are going to use social media to issue their personal views, then it’s time to have a social media policy and training that they all adhere to. We, the people, deserve better.

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