The ACT Minister for Education Joy Burch is in the news today for retweeting material which insults Christopher Pyne. In fact, the post that Burch retweeted includes a description of her federal counterpart as a C-word. Pretty strong stuff from the twitter account of a politician. And it’s caused a pretty strong reaction too. My question is, should she be judged on the words used by the originator of the post? Does her retweeting of it count as endorsement?
On a wider note, should we all be held to account in the same way over material we share as we would to material we write? Is all content, created or curated, equally our own responsibility if it appears in our online spaces?
So to start with, a recap of the Joy Burch incident.
The ACT Education Minister retweeted this post from Twitter user @GhostOfPJK:
This led to a bit of an uproar. There were posts in support of her retweet:
Joy Burch shouldn’t feel sorry for retweet, it nailed what Pyne was doing at that conference right on the head – being a smug prick.
— JaymusKingcott (@Jamus__) December 6, 2013
and also condemning it:
Has Joy Burch, Minister for Education, ACT resigned yet.? If not why not? Disgraceful piece of garbage – not fit for public life
— tiwigirl (@tiwigirl) December 6, 2013
There was also national mainstream media coverage of the story and calls from fellow politicians for her to resign. The ACT Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson said
“It’s unacceptable for Joy Burch to be in charge of schools and the education of children in the ACT. This tweet has now been publicised through the national media and threatens the ACT’s ability to negotiate effectively with the Commonwealth.”
Ms Burch has since apologised to Mr Pyne and says the retweet was a mistake caused by her poor social media skills.
If Joy Burch had typed out an original tweet, her own words written herself, and pressed “post” it would have been impossible to blame an errant click. You don’t accidentally type out a tweet when you mean to close an image. Apart from the believability of her excuse though, not much would be different.
From the outrage directed at her, it’s clear that her action of republishing someone else’s tweet on her own twitter profile was seen as being almost exactly the same as if she had written it herself. The way this story is being reported is largely: “Joy Burch called Christopher Pyne a c**t”, not “Joy Burch shared a post in which someone else calls Christopher Pyne a c**t”.
Although I personally agree with the sentiment of the tweet I can see why people would deem Burch’s actions as inappropriate. Retweeting is in effect a form of publishing. If someone is “following” Joy Burch on twitter, everything she posts or reposts will appear in that person’s feed – including retweets which use the c-word. In effect, by retweeting that post she was sending it out to the computer screens of her two thousand followers. She was re-publishing that tweet, under her name. When seen like that, I think it’s fair enough to expect someone in public office not to re-publish media that contains vulgarity.
That being said, a retweet doesn’t necessarily indicate agreement with the content of the original tweet. Many twitter accounts for politicians and corporations include a disclaimer in their bios, something along the lines of “Retweet does not equal endorsement”. Unfortunately for Joy she doesn’t have this disclaimer in her own.
But the point is, retweeting doesn’t always indicate agreement. Ricky Gervais often retweets insulting tweets about himself without comment. The reason behind this seems to be sharing the most ridiculous of these insults with his other followers. Retweeting an offensive post about himself is clearly not an endorsement from Ricky Gervais that he thinks he should burn in hell.
Material can be retweeted for many reasons. As a way to start discussion, to share a particularly ignorant/enlightening tweet, for humour, to highlight an opposing view for the sake of a balanced argument. A retweet doesn’t always need to mean “I feel exactly the same way as this poster”.
Clearly Ms Burch needs some retraining in social media use. But do we, users of social media, also need to rethink the assumptions we make about the re-publication of material. Should we be responsible for all material on our twitter profiles or only that material we write ourselves?
Personally I think it’s a smart move for pollies to avoid swearing on social media re-published or otherwise. But I also think that a more liberal attitude to what sharing means could lead to a more interesting social media environment.