Politician’s Twitter slip shows it’s time for a fix

It looked like an ordinary Friday afternoon for Chris Huhne, Britain’s secretary of state for energy and a member of the British coalition government. The day was ending. Things were wrapping up for the weekend. And then it all went haywire.

A mysterious message appeared on his Twitter stream: “From someone else fine,” it said. “But I do not want my fingerprints on the story C.”

It was rapidly deleted, but by then, of course, it was too late. Some of his 7,500 followers — some of them reporters — had picked up the message and began questioning it.

Was it genuine? Almost certainly: The message, obviously sent by mistake, apparently came in by text. But what was the story he was referring to? Was it a leak? Was it an attempt to undermine a rival… or even an ally? In these fractious political times, the mere hint of conspiracy was enough to send the political machine into overdrive, while Huhne himself appears to have gone silent.

This mini scandal will probably blow over, but the idea of a public figure being skewered by private messages let loose is far from new. Technology can accelerate leaks and slips; just ask Anthony Weiner, whose groin probably has spent as much time on the air as the man himself, or British prime minister Gordon Brown, who called a supporter “bigoted” without realizing his microphone was still on.

But these leaks have always happened whenever somebody fails to control their message or the people around them. Just look at the famous Zimmerman telegram, which hastened America’s entry into the First World War.

Some argue that these slips — in the long run — are no bad thing, since everything should happen in public. In a way, the “frictionless sharing” Facebook has championed is a euphemism for precisely that. And it’s an idea that media critic Jeff Jarvis argues forcefully in favor of in his book Public Parts.

But here’s the problem with slips like Huhne’s: They aren’t failures of control; they are failures of technology.

Regardless of the content of his message, the real issue is that Twitter’s architecture makes it incredibly easy to make the same mistake. There can’t be many of us who have never sent a direct message to our public accounts by mistake. Twitter has made changes to the system over the years, but day after day, people are still making this mistake.

Will Twitter ever fix this? Can it?

I don’t know, but I fear if they don’t, the service risks losing people who worry about these kind of mistakes happening. Whatever you think about Twitter’s value to the public sphere, it’s been refreshing for many people to be able to contact their representatives directly this way. But every slip-up makes it a little harder for conservative politicians and public figures to make the decision to sign up.

Can you blame them? I doubt any of us would press send so hastily if there were a button labelled “IMPLODE CAREER”.

But it would be a shame to lose out simply because politicians and public figures get too worried about pressing the wrong button. So please, Twitter, do something. You may regret it otherwise.