It really is quite simple.

If you wouldn’t have said it before there were social media, don’t say it now just because there are.

If you work for an organisation, don’t be rude about its leaders, products or policies in public.

Don’t imagine that online anonymity is an invisibility cloak.

If you work in the public sector, social media does not remove the politics from the politically contentious.

None of that is new. None of that should be even faintly surprising. There are ways in which online is another world. These rules are not among them.

But it still happens. Civil servants should understand the constraints they accept as part of the job. They – and everybody else – should understand the limitations on public speech (not quite the same thing) which are part of the deal.

Now there is reported (from a slightly unlikely source) a new case of somebody allegedly using twitter to make inappropriate political comments.  As reported, that sounds remarkably like the Civil Serf affair in 2008.

Why is this hard? The excuse that social media are too new for anyone really to know the rules is wearing a bit thin.  But I do think – as I wrote last time some of these issues came up – that twitter can be particularly beguiling, precisely because it plays so many different roles:

For twitter in particular, there is a very strange collision of contexts. It is like being in the pub with some friends, being at speakers’ corner shouting at (and being heckled by) random passers by, being on the Today programme, being on Big Brother, and throwing a message in a bottle out to sea – all at once.

But while that may explain, it does not explain away or justify.

In the end, it really is quite simple.


  1. I completely agree. It’s been interesting to note the response from the local government social media crowd to this story- others have made the same point as you elsewhere, and a few others agreed in comments and twitter posts. I wonder then, what are the key differences in this case to the @baskers situation late last year, where the same crowd roundly supported the accused twitter user?
    In that case, Letts’ wrote a very nasty piece decrying the fact that a civil servant could have the temerity to have a life (have a pint, sometimes have more than one etc)and tell people about it but he also noted that the twitter feed in question contained criticism of government policy…a bit of a no-no for a civil servant as we know. However, in that case it struck me that the local govt. twitter crowd took a bit of a different view. This is just an observation as the cases strike me as similar (NOT the same, similar), yet the reaction (from certain quarters) is quite different. Does the different reaction tell us something we probably already knew about the differences in how we respond to our friends behaviour and how we react to the behaviour of the someone a little more this case the anonymous @nakedCservant?

    1. There may well be something in what you say about how we react to those different cases – and what you describe mirrors my different reactions to Sarah Baskerville in posts I wrote at the time. But I do think the differences are more important than the apparent similarities.

      A large part of the attack on Sarah was about her lifestyle and how she chose to describe it. There is also an important difference, I think, between saying “I am not feeling very motivated at work today” and “I think my boss is an idiot”.

      But perhaps most of all, the sympathy Sarah got was because of the vehemence and volume of the attack. There is a huge difference between very personal and direct criticism in a national newspaper and simple reporting of the fact that a twitter user has got themselves into a bit of trouble.

      1. I think it’s also much more difficult to rally round to support an anonymous entity than someone who is genuinely being a real life person and attacked for being just that. I don’t/can’t know/verify the specifics of this latest ones, but I agree seems more similar to Civil Serf case – repeatedly attacking your own political masters clearly breaks code whereas @baskers tweets were much more generic and often self-effacing.

  2. It’s pretty clear to me that this case is extremely cut and dry – what this anonymous civil servant was tweeting was deliberately provocative, deliberately political and in clear contravention of the civil service code, in my opinion. Hiding behind a thin veil of anonymity is no defence.

    It’s the blatantness of this case rather than the inadvertedness (if that’s even a word) of Sarah’s case that is the difference.

    (I did/do follow said individual so am aware of what was being tweeted. tweeting has stopped in May and account has been protected since).

    The case of Sarah B. was totally different IMHO – a much more personalised attack in the national media for her lifestyle and associations.

    None the less, I become increasingly twitching about social media use as a civil servant.

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