How do you declare a conflict of interest in Twitter, when you have only 140 characters for your whole message?
The trigger discussion
The question came up after this Twitter exchange with Walter Robinson, an intelligent and moderate small-c conservative blogger and tweeter who later became a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry:
The irony, of course, is that Mr. Robinson himself was accusing the Ottawa Citizen of not including enough context in what it wrote.
How many characters for a disclaimer?
I believe that it’s right that someone should include a disclaimer when there’s a clear conflict of interest (e.g. you’re being paid specifically to defend an industry), but to be fair to Mr. Robinson, how, exactly, can you do that in 140 characters? “Disclaimer: I am a paid lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry” would use almost half of the space available in any tweet.
Mr. Robinson suggested in his reply above that there’s no hidden conflict, because someone can visit his web site or read old tweets and see who he works for; but if someone retweets his tweet, etc., they don’t have that context, and it looks like this is independent evidence from an informed pundit who wanted to weigh into the discussion.
Let’s make a hash of it
Given the limitations of Twitter, I think the right solution is to flag your tweet with a disclaimer hashtag that indicates that it is not independent (that doesn’t mean that it’s dishonest or misleading; just that you’re in a potentially ethically-compromised position). The hashtag wouldn’t tell anyone exactly what the conflict is, but it would at least tell them that they should go looking. Then, a person could (for example) look at Mr. Robinson’s Twitter profile, visit his personal site, and see that the pharmaceutical industry pays him.
Do any such tags already exist? They need to be short, and not conflict with an existing popular tag. Here are some suggestions: “
#COI” (conflict of interest), “
#disclaim“, or even “
(For the record, I believe that what Mr. Robinson wrote in his original Tweet is true, but I still think it’s important to disclose a major conflict in the tweet itself.)