I can fully understand Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s rationale behind issuing its members with a social media rulebook to help them mind their Ps and Qs.
The powers-that-be want to ensure that the authority’s good name isn’t besmirched by some clever dick with a lap top.
The only mystery is why it took the council’s internet police so long to issue a rule book.
Any politician (or journalist, for that matter) brave enough to use social media learns pretty sharpish that it’s a double-edged sword.
Twitter, Facebook and the like can be wonderful tools for promoting whatever you want to promote.
Of course, the problem arises when not everyone likes your agenda.
You see, we’re not all Stephen Fry. There’s a good reason why a national treasure like the man who gave us Blackadder’s Melchett, among other unforgettable characters, has the best part of five million followers on Twitter.
A comedy genius, Fry oozes wit and wisdom in equal measure and the 147 character limit for Tweets seems perfect for him.
That’s why I don’t mind occasionally reading about the minutiae of his life or his streams of consciousness – especially as, like me, he’s a cricket-lover.
Unfortunately, most mortals simply aren’t as engaging and, crucially, cannot draw upon the huge reservoir of goodwill and respect that Stephen Fry enjoys.
This is why many people get sucked into unseemly and unedifying slanging matches which everyone (well, anyone who follows them or is their ‘friend’) can see.
An ill-advised post, written in the heat of the moment, can have catastrophic consequences for a person’s life, career or popularity.
It may take less then a minute to vent your spleen on such very public forums but, once you have, there’s a chance the world and his dog will have seen your missive and drawn instant conclusions about your worth as a human being.
If the pen is mightier than the sword then I would suggest the keyboard is infinitely more powerful than both.
The harsh reality is that some people simply shouldn’t be allowed access to a toaster – let alone the internet.
These are the kind of people who could start an argument in an empty room.
They are simply not good with, well… words – their common sense deficiency and GCSE grade G in English regularly exposed in the cold expanse of cyberspace.
Worse still are those who actually revel in being provocative and argumentative or making every other word an expletive – believing themselves to be somehow edgy and cool.
These keyboard warriors are legends in their own computer rooms and are to be avoided, blocked and ostracised because, as I’ve learned from bitter experience, there’s simply no point debating with an idiot.
Which brings me neatly on to the use of social media by politicians.
I should say first that I’m all for anything which helps MPs and councillors better engage with an electorate which is, generally speaking, apathetic about politics – particularly at a local level.
Social media gives councillors a measure of freedom and a voice beyond the confines of the council chamber or their own party.
While I understand the local authority’s desire to police the use of the likes of Facebook and Twitter by councillors, I think some of the advice reads rather like excerpts from a rule book for stating the bleedin’ obvious.
The city council’s words of wisdom include: “Treat others with respect; avoid personal attacks and disrespectful, rude or offensive comments; do not publish anything that might be considered sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic or anti-faith.”
To me, the very fact that PR officers feel the need to remind elected members to be respectful to other people seems absurd.
Other guidance such as telling councillors to avoid discussing ‘controversial topics’ such as politics or religion is patently nonsense.
After all, what’s the point of members having a social media profile if they’re banned from talking about politics?
Ultimately, the internet is a vast, ever-changing and unpredictable environment into which politicians – and everyone else for that matter – venture at their own risk.
Irrespective of what advice is issued, once someone creates an account they’re on their own.
At some point someone viewing their profile will undoubtedly take exception to something they’ve written.
When this happens, as it inevitably will, the trick is not to be intimidated or cowed and to remember that, whoever you are arguing with, is not a Bond villain.
More likely, it’s a bloke sitting in his box room, wearing slippers and supping a mug of Ovaltine as he sets the world to rights.
Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel