By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times (MCT): LOS ANGELES — From behind the highly secretive Jackson dynasty’s once-impenetrable wall, Prince and Paris Jackson appeared to be airing their family’s dirty laundry this week in a typical way for a teen — on their Twitter feeds.
Their tweets about the alleged disappearance of their grandmother, matriarch Katherine Jackson, were emotionally charged and prolific. One of Prince’s posts thanking fans for their support ran far past 120 characters on TwitLonger. It’s an unprecedented celebrity family squabble playing out in the digital town square.
This comes in the same week that Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou was banned from competing in the Olympics after she sent out a Tweet perceived to be racist. On Thursday, Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher banned his players from using Twitter for the rest of the year after one of his players posted rap lyrics about killing police officers. And in the wake of Kristen Stewart’s apology for her “momentary indiscretion” with married “Snow White and the Huntsman” director Rupert Sanders, “Twilight” fans have taken to Twitter to express their anger toward Stewart and their support for her longtime boyfriend and co-star, Robert Pattinson.
Twitter has ingratiated itself as a daily media fixture delivering cultural and news tidbits to an information-ravenous public, but it’s increasingly finding itself in the spotlight as well. The quick-moving, instantaneous forum is often a double-edged sword for celebrities, who can bypass the tabloids and reach the masses with one uncensored click; but quick-fingered, loose-lipped tweets can do instant damage.
More frequently, celebrity Twitter feeds are being managed by wary flacks with an eye toward reining in their clients and avoiding potential missteps. The trend may be counterintuitive to the immediate, unfettered nature of Twitter, but some say it’s a necessary evil.
“The great news about Twitter is celebs can talk instantaneously and directly to their fans; the bad news is, celebs can talk instantaneously and directly to their fans,” says Howard Bragman, a longtime publicist and vice chairman of Reputation.com who’s represented Chaz Bono and Stevie Wonder, among many others. “It’s absolutely an increasing concern for us; every week we see something tweeted that’s taken right down.”
There’s always been speculation as to whether celebrity tweets are really their own, or whether more PR-savvy handlers are tweeting for them toward some strategic promotional end. After all, 14-year-old Paris Jackson alone has more than 700,000 followers. Bragman estimates that about 80 percent of celebrities tweet for themselves these days, though as the medium becomes more of a central nerve for taste making, he says that number might be on the decline.
“In the last three to five years social media has become so much more important than traditional media — people decide what movies and concerts to go to based on it — and yet it doesn’t have the same safeguards,” he says.
The Jackson family’s public brawl is messy, with competing and unclear agendas. Paris has been tweeting up a storm all week. “yes, my grandmother is missing. i haven’t spoken with her in a week i want her home now,” she posted. In a particularly meta-media move, Prince tweeted a screen shot of a group text conversation he had on his cellphone with Rebbie, Austin and Janet Jackson. “We demand to speak to my grandma now!!!,” it said in part. “Don’t let them pls.,” was the response bearing Janet’s name. Security tape footage at Katherine Jackson’s Calabasas, Calif., home has since gone viral, showing Janet Jackson swiping at a smartphone in Paris’ hands.
Jermaine Jackson got in on it too: “Mother is fine but is resting up in AZ on the orders of a doctor, not us,” one tweet read in part.
Even R&B singer Chris Brown, who was vacationing in the French Riviera this week (perhaps with Rihanna, according to close watchers of her Twitter feed), jumped onto his own Twitter feed from abroad, calling for a truce among the Jacksons. “Stop making y’all business public!” he wrote. “Michael was under enough scrutiny. . . . Work y’all (stuff) out as a family.”
The confusion was compounded when, on Thursday, Prince posted: “these tweets our not our own.” It sparked rumors that his account had been hacked. The tweet disappeared from his page several hours later.
Celebrity Twitter scandals are far from new. As A-listers of all stripes become more prolific on the frenetic, fast-paced social media platform — whether to show support for a national disaster, promote an upcoming project or simply to announce the imminent shampooing of their pink-clad Chihuahua — their (highly entertaining) social media missteps seem to multiply.
Tori Spelling’s husband, Dean McDermott, accidentally tweeted a shot of his wife’s naked breast last year while attempting to show off their son, Liam. Charlie Sheen tweeted his cellphone number to the world last year when trying to send a direct message to Justin Bieber.
At the height of the Penn State scandal, Ashton Kutcher tweeted his support of Joe Paterno — allegedly before he knew the full allegations against the coach — and was instantly attacked by fans. Shortly thereafter, he turned over the management of his Twitter feed to the social media wing of his production company, Katalyst, so it could vet his posts. “A secondary editorial measure,” he called it. But at what expense?
“Twitter’s a real-time medium,” says Karen North, an expert in social media at the University of Southern California. “Ashton Kutcher was being careful by handing off control of his Twitter account; but he also lost the immediacy and genuine authenticity that made him so popular, so quickly, in the first place.”
North warns of Twitter’s dual potential for both positive connectivity and image tainting. “The power of Twitter is the ability to disseminate information quickly and virally so it will spread exponentially. But we have kind of a ‘gotcha’ culture — when someone makes a mistake or something goes wrong, it’s far more interesting to us,” she says.
It’s a common saying in the digital sphere that Facebook is where you lie to your friends, and Twitter is where you tell the truth to strangers. But the social media platform’s roots as both a personal broadcast of sorts, as well as a (perceived) intimate line of communication between A-listers and the public are changing.
“The day of the tweeting specialist is about to arrive,” says Eddie Michaels, president of Insignia PR, which handles the actors Noah Wyle and Lou Diamond Phillips. “At first, Twitter was thought of like the telephone, talking to one person; but it’s no longer a personal communication tool. Twitter is no different than sitting on a national TV talk show. So it’s one of those things that’s definitely at the top of the list of internal discussions for us.”
Michaels says that Twitter’s bittersweet growth from a more personal, organic interface to what’s now an international megaphone is a natural offshoot of technological innovation. He fully expects to soon see a new platform taking Twitter’s place as the preferred direct line of communication between celebrities and fans.
“Something with a timing component so (information) can’t live on,” Michaels says. “And I think high-profile people will start communicating with finite, smaller groups, not everyone. Twitter will still serve its purpose — when you want to get the message out to the world.”