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If you're a devotee of Twitter you have probably heard about Nir Rosen.

A fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security and an often provocative journalist/commentator on all things Middle East, Mr. Rosen decided to weigh in on the sexual assault of CBS's Lara Logan while reporting in Cairo.

At 2 o'clock in the morning.

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In a few tweets, he suggested that the celebrity reporter was probably trying to outdo Anderson Cooper, who was famously roughed up while he was in Cairo. "Look," Mr. Rosen said in a second tweet, "she was probably groped like thousands of other women."

It didn't take long for his words to reverberate far beyond his loyal group of "followers." Soon, he became a major news story and would have the "honour" of being eviscerated on national television by none other than Mr. Cooper himself. After that, his fall was quick and he resigned his fellowship. On Thursday, he chronicled his descent in a piece for headlined: 'How 480 characters unraveled my career.' In it, he admitted that a few utterly stupid and contemptible Twitter blasts had effectively destroyed his career.

The story came along just as I was contemplating the dangers of Twitter. I have only been a member of its 140-character universe for a couple of months. I joined shortly after signing up for Facebook, after resisting it for years. In both cases I did it for professional reasons. Journalists increasingly use social media for research and promotional purposes. It's a good way to disseminate and expose your work. If I'm going to be honest, it means more hits on The Globe and Mail's website.

It didn't take long, however, for me to realize that while something like Twitter has many positive benefits - helping bring down dictators among them - it is also something to be used at your peril. A tweet can be every stupid thing that you've ever blurted out when you were angry, drunk or bored out of your mind at a party. But where normally only a few people might hear it and call you an idiot, with Twitter the whole world is potentially listening. And when the planet turns on you, it can be ugly, as Mr. Rosen has discovered.

In his case, there's no excuse for the callowness and insensitivity his tweets exhibited. But he did talk about a couple of things in the piece that resonated with me.

He said he sent the tweets to provoke a couple of friends, not thinking of the broader audience at the time or the consequences his words might reap. He said his words were an example of the often careless black humour for which many in the media are known and it would be hard to argue with that. Maybe he thought, after a few glasses of wine, he was being funny. This doesn't excuse for a second what he said but I think it does speak to the way in which Twitter can completely suck you in to forgetting who you are really talking to - the world. In the process, the worst kind of sophomoric humour acquires a legitimacy it doesn't deserve.

But once it's out there, well, it's fair game.

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I learned this a couple of weeks ago when I got into an exchange with a reporter with The Vancouver Sun on Twitter about The Globe's coverage of the controversy surrounding the John Furlong e-mail regarding the Whistler Sliding Centre. Before I knew it, another reporter at the Sun had captured the exchange and posted it on the Internet.

He didn't ask. But it soon occurred to me he didn't have to. Even though I considered the conversation private because it only involved the two of us, it was on Twitter, where nothing is private.

This week, journalists in this country were all atwitter about a tweet of Maclean's columnist Scott Feschuk. He jumped into the middle of a spat between Canadian Press reporter Jennifer Ditchburn and Dimitri Soudas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's communications chief, and sent a shockingly crude tweet about Mr. Soudas.

Where once that might have been an e-mail from the writer to Ms. Ditchburn, today it's an exchange that thousands read.

There are lots of examples of that sort of thing and honestly, it scares me a little. One false move, one over-the-top moment of stupidity and bang - it blows up in your face. Which is why I've so far avoided going on Twitter within two miles of a glass of wine.

The power of Twitter?

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"I've apologized, lost my job, and humiliated myself and my family," Mr. Rosen wrote.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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