The Life of a Twitter Gaffe

Here is a very short post about an enormous Twitter Gaffe, along with a short set of suggestions for minimising the risks of this occurring.

The Gaffe

During a period when over a million people were marching in Paris, following a series of terrorist attacks, a woman on Twitter hit the ‘Tweet’ button & published this message to the world:

You’ll notice a few things there. Firstly, the user has ‘Cllr’ in her name – short for ‘Councillor’; secondly her Twitter ID contains ‘Labour’, as in the political party. Thirdly, and most importantly:If you followed the events of the Paris Attacks, you will know the three names she’s used in the tweet itself:

  • The first, ‘Charlie’, is the first name of the magazine where several members of staff were murdered by terrorists.
  • The third, ‘Ahmed’, is the first name of a Muslim police officer who was also murdered by terrorists.
  • The second, ‘Kouachi’, is the surname of two of the terrorists.

If you look into ‘Cllr Anita Ward’s bio, you’ll see one of her listed jobs is Chairman of Birmingham County Royal British Legion, so it was a 99.9999% certainty that she did not actually mean to support ‘#JeSuisKouachi’. In other words, an enormous gaffe: She had included the name of the murderers accidentally in a tweet which otherwise looked very well intended.

The tweet was live for about 40 minutes, before it was deleted with an apology that read “Major Major Balls up this afternoon on twitter. Apols if I have offended anyone. #tag pressed in error.”

40 minutes later was another apology: “I get it & I am sorry!! Most of all to the families of those killed and to my son injured in Afghanistan fighting these type of people.”

The Response

The reason for two apologies was that hundreds of people were now angrily tweeting their disgust at ‘Cllr Anita Ward’, despite her apologies.

And of course, they continued further, with others posting the tweet without the context of her apology, and various others making political statements hanging off it:

And eventually it reached ‘The Eggs’ – Twitter accounts from users who use it so little they don’t change their avatars from the default or, in some cases, accounts set up purely to argue with particular issues without displaying the real owner’s details:

To anyone who uses Twitter very regularly on a range of devices, it was fairly obvious what had likely occurred here: “that looks like an autocomplete error”.

How the Error Occurred

There are 2 types of autocomplete errors on Twitter:

  1. Autocompleted text from your phone’s dictionary itself.
  2. Autocompleted hashtags & usernames, which the Twitter app often nudges you to use.

The latter is less common, and those who do not use Twitter regularly may not be familiar with this. Here’s an example of how they occur. Here I’ve simply entered ‘#jesuis’ into Twitter’s ‘Search’ box:

You can see there, the third hashtag it is encouraging me to click is ‘#JeSuisKouachi’, the same term as ‘Cllr Anita Ward’ had used in her tweet. Ie, it appears she clicked that in error, added the correct hashtag after it, but failed to delete the very offensive erroneous hashtag before publishing the tweet.

An absolutely enormous gaffe, created by a small error in using Twitter’s user interface.

6 Lessons

Lessons we can learn from this:

  1. Do read your tweets before you hit the ‘tweet’ button. That sounds obvious, but using twitter sometimes feels a little like speaking, and we do not usually rehearse what we’re about to say in our heads before we start talking.
  2. Be particularly careful with hashtags & usernames where you’ve simply clicked an autocompleted suggestion. Autosuggestions, and other algorithms, do not understand the nuances humans do.
  3. Keep an eye on your notifications after you’ve posted a tweet. In the above instance, it was live for 40 minutes, despite her receiving replies within a few minutes questioning it. The faster an error is corrected, the lower the likelihood of it ‘going viral’.
  4. Understand that deleted tweets live on – replies & screengrabs don’t disappear.
  5. Even if you apologise & explain, some will not understand the apology, some will question it, some will simply ignore it & use their preferred interpretation to make their own points. (even if they make many errors themselves – as per some of the tweets above containing typos et cetera)
  6. If your Twitter bio denotes your allegiance to a political party, football club, or anything else with tribal supporters, expect that to feature among the reaction to any large errors you make.

Do leave any other thoughts in comments below, and do share this if you think others would find it useful.

4 replies
  1. Ingo Bousa
    Ingo Bousa says:

    The reactions to that poor woman’s tweet were [and still are] – as always – hysterical. Giving ‘the people’ a voice via the internet brings out the best and the worst.. shouldn’t surprise me. You just need to read any Youtube comment thread to witness the depths of human interaction. It’s always “write, then think” [or rather “shout, don’t think”] instead of “think, then write”. As seen with the ‘white van man’ tweet showed last year: A tweet, even if the main intention wasn’t even to offend, can cost you your job if you are in the public eye. On the other hand every newspaper or magazine can publish xenophobic hatred and lie directly to our face with no real consequences.

    Welcome to the age of the rise of the idiots.

  2. Genghiz the kahn
    Genghiz the kahn says:

    Remember the 2010 General Election when Labour’s candidate ‘accidentally’ posted postal vote totals, only to delete the post once the press noticed what she had done.

    Although she was Labour’s Twitter Tsarina, and a qualified lawyer, she still went ahead and pressed send. For her trouble she received plenty of bad press coverage and a police caution.

    Perhaps some of Labour’s finest still need to engage brains before posting tweets.

  3. Beth Bridges, The Networking Motivator
    Beth Bridges, The Networking Motivator says:

    There’s a very interesting book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” that addresses this phenomenon. On the one hand, social shaming helps keep people from doing bad things, on the other hand, in some cases, it gets out of control for a simple mistake. (I haven’t read the book yet, but a long blog post on the topic by the author, the book is on my reading list).


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