Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Helen Thomas and concepts of privacy

The 'retirement' of Helen Thomas after her comments about Jews is a vivid case study of the new world in which we all live. She made what was clearly an unguarded comment, albeit with a camera in her face, and is now paying the price. Personally, I think what she said was unforgivable and showed a dramatic lack of knowledge of the subject, but I understand she represents a constituency of support.

Anyway, that isnt the issue I want to focus on, as I'm more interested of this event in the context of a larger trend, where private (distasteful) views and actions can turn on individuals, and cause their downfall.

Several PPCs met their end during the election due to their comments on Twitter primarily. In all, if memory serves, it was 4 who decided to put out offensive or just plain stupid 'tweets', in this case assuming that these were private comments which would elicit amusment, rather than revulsion. Of course they were quickly spread around the internet and crushed the political dreams of these misguided individuals.

Consider the case of 4chan and the cat abuser. A youtube video emerged, showing some guys proudly abusing a cat. This caused outrage on 4chan, and they tore apart every clue avaliable on the video and every other source they could think of, before passing the details along to the local police department. The cat was rescued and the prepretrator arrested. It took 48 hours. I'm choosing not to post a link as all the articles I could find were pretty depressing, google it if you're interested.

On a related topic, check out Chris Poole's (founder of 4chan), and his speech at TED. Very interesting, comprehensive, and amusing discussion of privacy and how it can work for/against people.

Anyway, to return to what I was babbling about and bring it towards what is colloquially known as a 'point'.

What we are also seeing is the emergence of a group of politicans and public figures who are well aware of this and have cunningly decided to react by using the actual personality (shock horror) when speaking, dispensing with nuance and speaking from the heart to their audience. The best example I can think of is the inimitable Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, a state which holds a special place in my heart. For a particularly good example of his straight shooting ways, enjoy this little clip.

Our concepts of privacy have to change, and I think increasingly our public figures will have to recognise that everything they say, outside of the four walls of their own home, and perhaps in private meetings, are now open to discussion and criticism by a wider community.

Does this mean that no one can say anything ever? No, it means that if you're going to say something, you better be damn sure you can back it up, and rightly so.

It shouldnt be acceptable for Helen Thomas to spit bile in the way she did at Israel. Parliamentary candidates shouldnt be allowed to get away with comments about gays or how much they hate their constituents.

Long term I wonder what the implications of this will be for the way we speak to each other, and the views which are prevalent in society.

We all want to conform to social norms, and each of these people believed, when saying what they did, that their comments were acceptable within their audience.

As more people realise that their views are abhorrent to a significant section of society (if only by trial and error) will they stop talking about them? And what will the long term impact be as fewer people speak about topics seen as broadly unaccetable?

For people in the communications industry there is a genuine need to understand the total collapse of personal privacy around public figures. It sounds obvious I know, but repeatedly we're seeing well advised people saying stupid things, so clearly the obvious message isnt getting though.

There are two real rules I think are worth living by as a public figure

First, if you're outside your own home, you're in public. Whatever you say, whatever you do, will be recorded somewhere. EVERYTHING. Even if its only on a mobile phone camera. Consider what you have to say and how you say it. You don't have to be a coward, but you will have to defend your views.

Second, assume everything you say and do in public will last forever. The internet has become an incredible resource for achived material. Nothing gets deleted. And even if it does get lost, someone, somewhere will have kept a copy. It means you'll have to explain why you changed your position on an issue, and your answer better be good. If smoked pot at university, there will be a picture, it will be made public.

UPDATE: Michael Gove falling down today pretty much proves both of my above points.

I think that'll do for the time being, I'm sure I'll have reason to return to this topic, if only because its something I'm thinking about a lot at the moment.

Mostly I'm fascinated to see if anyone has any suggestions on how we fix it.
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