ITV News at Ten Friday 7 December 2018

Do we all need to delete old tweets?

I was on ITV News at Ten on Friday, talking about Kevin Hart, The Oscars and social media.

Kevin Hart is an American comedian and actor who was all set to host next year’s Oscars when homophobic comments he’d tweeted in the past were resurfaced. Hart initially tried to hold on to his Academy Awards contract, but public pressure was too much. He was forced to apologise – and stepped down from hosting the Oscars on Friday.

I wasn’t asked to comment so much on the specific case as on the wider issue of historical tweets coming back to haunt us. The reporter wanted to know if we’re now living in a universe where no-one’s allowed to have an opinion on anything and all public figures must be squeaky clean.

Well – of course not. Life would be pretty boring if everyone was a cookie cutter copy of everyone else. And society isn’t well served by one-dimensional social media profiles which simply airbrush out what the people behind them are really thinking.

Cleaning up our act

Time, place and context matter. Barack Obama talked openly about drug-taking in his autobiography, yet no-one cited those confessions as a reason for him not to take up the US presidency. In fact, his honesty had the opposite effect: having those sorts of skeletons in his cupboard made Obama more rounded and relatable.

Social media consultants love to talk about authenticity, and the importance of being yourself online. The bearing of our souls on social media, the sharing of mental health problems and other issues is undeniably a positive development.

But when the expression of our own selves meets the criticism – and ultimately the demonisation – of others, that’s where the danger comes. For many, it may be like walking a tightrope: but we all need to balance our own desire for self-expression with a good dose of self-awareness and empathy for others.

It’s not censorship, it’s about respect

When I was at university, I had to ask a friend to explain the “no platform” concept: to ensure that everyone had the best possible learning experience, it was better not to voice opinions that might upset people: anything that could be interpreted as sexist or racist was banned – or at least challenged.

I had my first experience of that when we published a sexually explicit cover on the front of the student newspaper (it was something to do with enforced strip searches at airports). I personally wasn’t offended by it – but quite a few people were. I remember being surprised by that – but really, it wasn’t that great a cover. Not worth upsetting a whole load of people for.

Better safe than sorry

I don’t think Kevin Hart’s jokes were that funny. But neither am I a fan of the social media mob. And it’s clearly not right when people who’ve threatened someone with disproportionate aggression are themselves threatened disproportionately. No-one deserves to be verbally hung, drawn and quartered in front of a jeering crowd.

And I’m sure, in a more enlightened future, we will no longer use the denigration of others as a means to get a cheap laugh. Just as much as we’ll no longer think it’s ok to ask female footballing champions if they can twerk. Or think it’s funny to threaten vegan journalists with steak. Like Kevin Hart, we’re all still learning.

If you think you said stuff in the past that might reflect badly on you now, then yes, you might need to delete old tweets. You’re better off going back through all your public online profiles and getting rid of any updates that are likely to cause you damage. Just remember to do this before – not after – you get offered your dream contract.

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