Friday, November 27, 2015

Why get all a-Twitter about D.A.'s feed?

"I've looked on many women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me." – former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

Why get all a-Twitter about D.A.'s feed?

Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON, File / Staff Photographer)
Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON, File / Staff Photographer)

"I've looked on many women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me." – former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

Through a spokesperson, District Attorney Seth Williams has denied viewing any lewd photos that were posted by others on his personal Twitter account feed. This comes after a Daily News investigative piece found that photos of “busty, scantily clad women” were potentially viewable by Williams and his 573 followers. Without specifically saying that Williams has broken any laws or policies, the reporters mention the D.A. office’s social media policy, which advises employees not to engage in online activity that could reflect poorly on the office’s reputation. The Daily News went to the extent of actually capturing the images as proof that the nude and semi-nude photos were in plain sight.

Can I have that job? I’ll do it free.

Yeah. Laugh all you like. But let me explain why I’d like to perform that task.

One of the most quoted passages from the Bible is a variation of “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”

More coverage
D.A.'s Twitter feed had lewd photos

Take that quote, fast forward roughly 2,000 years, and add some new words to it -- like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest – and voilà – “you’ve got female,” as in sexually suggestive female photos.

Is there any one of us on Facebook who has at least 573 friends that hasn’t received at least one friend request from an attractive woman (most likely a bot) that we don’t know? Is there any one of us on Twitter who has at least 573 followers that hasn’t viewed a nude or semi-nude photo at some point? Is there any one of us who has never received an unsolicited email with a conceivably lewd photo?

Raise your hands, please. No hands?

Unless you’re President Obama (or City Councilman Jim Kenney) and have a paid staff to handle your Twitter account, you’re like the rest of us and sometimes get lewd or otherwise inappropriate messages or photos on your feed.

That’s my point. Give me any politician or any elected official who has any kind of social media presence. Whether they proactively seek it or unintentionally receive it, there is not one among us who has not received something lewd or lascivious. In my former life as a privacy manager for a large, publicly traded company in the Midwest, one of my continual tasks was to help the information security personnel minimize – not eliminate, as you can’t completely remove – sexually suggestive spam from appearing in employees’ work-related email accounts. It was a cat and mouse game, as whatever technology we used was always one step behind the perpetrators.

It’s no different today. And that’s why people shouldn’t be picking on Seth Williams. For there isn’t one among us who hasn’t experienced the same thing.

But this is an election year for him, and I suppose these titillating stories will spicen things up, although they are unlikely to alter the outcome of this year’s election in which Williams is expected to easily win reelection. Running unopposed in the Democratic primary, Williams faces a long-shot candidate in Republican Danny Alvarez in the general election.

Alvarez, a former assistant district attorney and a first-time political candidate, was quick to criticize Williams. In a press release emailed to me, Alvarez made the following statement: “As District Attorney, Seth Williams has a responsibility to set positive examples for the community. Mr. Williams should better monitor the information he is disseminating through public property and social media, and it seems that he violated his own office policy. Philadelphians deserve better. This conduct is regrettable because of its inappropriate nature, and especially since it was committed while he should be focusing his efforts on combating crime and making our streets safer."

I certainly can understand Alvarez’s perspective. Our next district attorney should exhibit the highest threshold of ethical behavior, especially since he will most certainly have to prosecute people in some pretty iffy cases. And if you break your own social media policy, well, that does sound pretty hypocritical.

I was going to pose some of these questions to Williams, but his campaign manager, William R. Miller V, told me that Williams was not commenting on the issue. However, Miller did have this to say during our phone conversation: “I just think that when you look at the gravity of what’s going on in this city as it relates to gun violence and the number of lives that are just lost senselessly … when you think about where a news agency should dedicate its time - reducing gun violence and trying to find more creative ways of solving the problem - to print a story about a Twitter follower, which is clearly a distraction when you look at the grand scheme of problems that are facing most of Philadelphia – I think that was irresponsible. In my opinion, totally ridiculous.”

I agree with Miller. The Daily News story was an unnecessary, supermarket tabloid-style distraction. And I wasn’t alone in my assessment.

“The act of combing through DA Seth Williams’ Twitter connections - not even the comments he has made, but those he is connected with - to engineer a 'gotcha' moment is harmful to democracy and our political system,” said Nathan R. Shrader, a former legislative aide and deputy director of communications to former Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll. “This is an example of the press intentionally contributing the public’s declining respect and trust in our politics and politicians. Citizens ought to be concerned by the heightened scrutiny of Williams’ Twitter feed because it attempts to give the public a sense of wrongdoing or scandal where none exists.”

“I think this is much ado about nothing,” said Micah Mahjoubian, principal of Soapbox Solutions, a Philly-based political consulting firm specializing in online media. “Williams posted nothing inappropriate, and there is no evidence he was engaging with the accounts in anyway.”

But I did find a friend who disagreed with me and others. She’s one of my 2,000+ Facebook friends. And to protect her privacy, I’ll call her “Stephanie.” She is a self-described 20-something nanny living in the Philadelphia suburbs who is an unapologetic exhibitionist. While Stephanie has never publicly posted nude photos, she has posted literally hundreds of sexually suggestive, softcore photos of herself – most professionally-taken.

Not formally educated, but quite street smart, I asked Stephanie to read the Daily News article and give me her thoughts. I was floored by what she told me. “I wouldn't feel comfortable if I was a victim and someone who was supposed to protect me in a court of law had been checking out my pictures. I know it sounds hypocritical, but I think in legal situations that those professionals must be held to a higher standard. Likewise, I would not go to a church if I knew the priest had been looking at my pics.”

A few times during my Congressional run last year, I clicked a “like” on Stephanie’s photos, more as a friendly gesture than anything else, prompting my wife – who is hardly a prude – to advise me to be careful.

"Because your Facebook friends are not just friends that you have fun and chat with, but since many of them are political connections, they expect you to be someone who doesn't talk about those kinds of things,” my wife Masako told me, adding, “They are hypocrites with their friends, but with you, they hold you to a higher standard. If you comment 'wow' below some woman’s photo, then all of your 2,000 friends have the potential to see what you are doing, that you are commenting on dirty pictures, and then they question your qualification as a candidate or leader. I don't care, but I worry that other people will.”

My libertarian ID tells me not to care. My Republican ego urges me to submit to my wife’s sage advice.

Where does U-Turn suggest we go from here?

“This also presents a 'teachable moment' for all elected officials in Philadelphia and beyond,” says Shrader, who is also serves as adjunct faculty at Drexel and Neumann universities. “Twitter and elected office just don’t mix. Because of the character limitations involved with Twitter, it is very difficult for a politician, elected official, or candidate to have control over the message or those who are following or interpreting the message. It just isn’t a 'safe' medium for politics, which is why I would advise any public official or candidate running for office to just say 'no' to Twitter in the first place.”

While Mahjoubian doesn’t rule out using Twitter, he gives cautionary advice. “The first thing I advise political clients about social media is to remember that nothing they do or post on social media is private. That’s why it’s called SOCIAL media. Therefore, they must always be mindful about how a wider audience will interpret anything they do or post.”

Regardless of what Williams does, I hope that after this episode that he and other elected officials and candidates will apply more due diligence moving forward. If you have a public web site or social media application, you have to police it. If you or your staff (if legally allowed) are not willing to monitor it on a daily basis, close it. Yes, it’s a scary, new virtual world out there, and even the most intelligent people don’t know how to control every activity. So we should give some slack, but not too much – especially from those with whom we place our highest trust.

But other than the legitimate claim that Williams didn’t follow his own rules, there really isn’t a story here. And besides, catching a glance at sexy pics of a woman isn’t really a story. Not unless you want to compete with Philadelphia Magazine for the Out-of Touch award.




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John Featherman is a contributor at and writes about politics and consumer-related issues. Reach John at

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