One tweet sent from Dianne Abbott to investigative journalist Bim Adewunmi in the midst of a conversation regarding the Stephen Lawrence case has landed her in hot water. The tweet, which some claim to be racist, alludes to the fact that white people loving to “divide and rule”, which Abbott hashtagged as a “tactic as old as colonialism”. Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi called for her to be sacked by Ed Milliband because ‘a healthy society should not tolerate any form of racism. [He thought] Abott should apologise and resign’. Ed Miliband reportedly phoned her in the midst of a Sky News interview to give her a verbal dressing down and the Labour party released a statement stating they disagreed with the tweet as ‘it is wrong to make sweeping generalisations’. Abbott has since deleted the offending tweet and apologised saying it was taken out of context and claiming she was referring to the nature of “19th Century European colonialism”, yet the knives had already been sharpened.
In some parallel world then Abbott’s tweet may have been racist but although her choice of words here were clumsy and she would have been better saying “certain white people”, it is clear that Dianne Abbott is not a racist. In her later apology she clarified her hashtag as meaning 19th Century colonialism and that argument still holds intellectual water today. You don’t need to go as far back as the Belgium ruled Rwanda and the separation of Tutsi and Hutu, in the 1950’s the British rule of Sudan led to that country’s extensive civil wars and ultimately the formation of the world’s most recent country, South Sudan.
I don’t think Ed Miliband is going to pander to the right’s calls for her to resign. Instead this story will run its course for a few more days as the tribalism that is party politics plays it out through various media forms; that I think is inevitable. Therefore, this time next week it will be seen as nothing more than a gaffe that was apologised for and Abbott can return to being a politician never too far from controversy. For in this world Dianne Abbott is clearly not guilty of racism, but making a valid argument whose meaning was muddied by an oversimplification brought about by the platform she was using.
Users of twitter should know and understand the limitations of a 140 character count. Using twitter regularly forces one to express their ideas as succinctly as possible and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have expressed in 140 characters the semantics of your initial thought. The clumsiness of her phrasing was a result of that limitation and for that she has apologised. But what of the “twitter mob” who are still calling for her head and brought this to the attention of the mainstream media? Whenever a story breaks on twitter it is inundated with polarised tweets. Everyone armed with a keyboard and an opinion rushes to join in the debate. Much has been made of this already, Nick Cohen noted the good that had come from online campaigns alongside the bad back in 2009, however, what has not been said is that there is a danger that twitter could drive away its high profile tweeters. In an age of PR polished, media savvy high profile those who decide to engage with the public through twitter allow the public to view facets of their character which would otherwise be out of bounds: their sense of humour, their likes, dislikes; an intimate look at the interior of their lives and their fallibility. Lest we forget that latter fact and continually castigate en mass we could see public figures being too scared to put themselves in the “firing line”; by overreacting and galvanising mainstream media support who then mistakenly extrapolate public opinion from twitter news feeds we run the risk of public figures not being willing to risk their careers by going on twitter. Twitter is already viewed by some in PR as dangerous: the Manchester United team were famously banned from using twitter (this ban has since been lifted), George Clooney famously claimed not to use twitter because he drank at night and alcohol and twitter would have been detrimental to his career, whilst David Cameron infamously said of twitter that “too many twits may make a twat”. Now there is nothing wrong with having that opinion of twitter, but I don’t want a world in which those in the public eye are able to engage with the public on a human level to be seen as a parallel world. Twitter does not have a case to answer to today but should definitely be wary of itself in the future.
Well, that’s not strictly true. Twitter does have to answer to one thing today: that in the week when one of the most important judicial decisions occurred, a momentous occasion for the removal of racism, we were not talking about Stephen Lawrence but a carelessly worded tweet.
Tim Rurtherford is known as @KeepOnTRutting on Twitter.