Gerber: Unsweet tweets bite new editor

Gerber: Unsweet tweets bite new editor

June 17th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

We live in a world of chronic tweeters. Heck, even the pope has a Twitter account.

So I didn't think much when I received an email a week ago Saturday, saying our new Free Press editorial page editor was tweeting. He should be; social media will be an integral part of his job when he joins us later this month.

Then I clicked over to his supposed tweets and read some of them.

I clutched my smartphone so tightly, I'm surprised it didn't shatter.

The tweets were snarky, smug, rude, inappropriate and highly offensive.

And those were the nice ones.

News, as they say, spreads fast. Within minutes, my phone was buzzing with texts, emails and calls from concerned Times Free Press staff members, some readers and a few former co-workers whom I haven't heard from in years and who live in other parts of the country.

The questions ran along the same lines: What is he thinking? How could he? Is he drunk? Crazy? What?

All legitimate questions - except that the tweeter wasn't Drew Johnson, who starts June 26 as the paper's Free Press editor. After reading some of the less-than-savory tweets, I placed a panicked call to Johnson and sent a few harried texts. He called me back but had no idea what I was babbling about.

The tweets, it turns out, were sent by an impostor, someone obviously determined to embarrass Johnson and the newspaper.

At the start of the day on Saturday, Johnson didn't have a personal Twitter account, although he'd previously tweeted on behalf of a think tank where he once worked. But as a result of the bogus tweeter, he started his own Twitter account late Saturday night, @Drews_Views, to let people know he had nothing to do with the other one, @TCPR.

"@TCPR is not me. Please ignore any ridiculous things the impostor acct is saying," he tweeted.

Johnson had intended to tweet as the Free Press editor, but he hadn't expected to be forced to open an account to defend his name and reputation.

Johnson's very first tweet: "The thing I hate the most about @TCPR impersonating me is that it forced me to actually get a Twitter account."

The whole episode highlights the power - and danger - of Twitter. It's a quick, simple way to reach a whole lot of people with little effort. It's a great way to be entertained or keep up with people or issues. But it's fraught with potential pitfalls.

Not everyone subscribes to the "think before you tweet" theory. Too many people are quick to toss out a 140-character opinion, and the next thing you know they've been kicked out of college or lost a job or suffered public embarrassment. Even a key editor at one of America's largest and most well-respected newspapers, the Washington Post, was forced to close his Twitter account after he was criticized for sharing his personal views on health care spending.

At the Times Free Press, we've discussed the dangers of unrestrained social media postings with our staff. Dieters often use the phrase: "A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips." Social media might alter that to: "A moment on the mind, a lifetime online."

In other words, before you tweet or post something to Facebook or send an email, step back and consider what you've written. It's hard to take back any ill-considered words you may send into the ether. And those words can come back and haunt you, even years down the line.

Or, as in Johnson's case, Twitter can be used by an anonymous coward to damage a person's reputation or make them look like a jerk. It could happen to anyone. In the Wild West world of social media, there's no way to know if the person on the other side of the tweet (or email or anonymous comment) is real.

Just last week, at the Times Free Press' Best of Preps banquet, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning said he isn't on Twitter. Yet there are numerous people tweeting under some version of his name. I'd bet some followers of those accounts think they're following the real Eli Manning.

On the bright side, Johnson is gaining followers on his new Twitter account, which is good for his work as Free Press editorial page editor.

On the dark side, another bogus Twitter account could always pop up.

It's an exciting new tech world out there with limitless possibilities, but some of those possibilities can be pretty scary.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Send suggestions to readerfeed back@timesfreepress.com.