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What tweeting leaders could learn from Spider-Man

By Ian Morris
06 May 2020

By Ian Morris, Partner

With great power comes great responsibility. Politicians and business leaders would do well to remember such sage advice from Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben.

I was reminded of the web-slinger’s mantra when reading of recent tweets from two of the twittersphere’s most colourful characters, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, and the US President himself, Donald Trump. Musk tweeted “FREE AMERICA NOW” and “Give the people their freedom back”, calling for an end to lockdown measures designed to prevent deaths. They were not dissimilar to Trump’s earlier tweets calling for state officials to “liberate” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia (all Democrat-led), widely seen as an endorsement of anti-lockdown protests in defiance of health guidelines.

Some may argue that both authors have a right to free speech. My view is that values like freedom must be temporarily put aside at a time when the avoidance of thousands upon thousands of deaths is at stake. In this case, responsibility trumps freedom.

Of course, these two individuals are not typical examples of political or business leaders. They are both very much at the unorthodox end of the spectrum and no strangers to highly controversial and inflammatory tweets.

Trump has openly mocked the leader of North Korea, accused Barack Obama of wiretapping the phones in Trump Tower, and shared a series of Islamophobic tweets from a far-right extremist group.

Just last week Musk wiped $14bn off Tesla’s value after tweeting its share price was too high. In 2018, a tweet suggesting he had funding to take Tesla private led to a regulatory fine of $20m and him stepping down as chairman. And last year he was taken to court after labelling a British diver “pedo guy” on the platform.

But extreme examples or not, the point is still worth making. People in leadership positions wield a great deal of power, and they must use that power with a sense of responsibility that very much includes what they post on social media.

Leaders have followers, in some cases lots of them. Musk has over 33m followers on twitter. Trump has almost 80m. And while I am not suggesting for a moment that all these millions of people are mindless disciples, ready to do the bidding of their masters if commanded by tweet, many of them will undoubtedly be heavily influenced by them.

This is because the relationship between leaders and followers, even on social media, is assymetrical. The boss, the leader, is looked up to. He or she wields authority and has the power to persuade. Many followers aren’t just so in the social media sense; their views and actions are consciously or sub-consciously influenced or shaped by the leader.

For business leaders, what they say on their social platforms reflects back not just on them as individuals but on their companies, and therefore has impacts for their employees and investors.

Being a leader means your actions have consequences, and the bigger your remit and influence, the wider the consequences of what you say and do. This is true at any time. But at a time like the present, when mass imitation of poor or misguided examples could cause death on a huge scale, the role of leaders in disseminating responsible messages is even more vital – particularly in the social media world where their words arguably have even more impact than normal.