Let’s Do Lunch With Sinéad McSweeney

Over baked cod at TWITTER‘s Dublin HQ, SINÉAD McSWEENEY talks “FAKE NEWS” and the Trump Twitter storm …


The first big test of the Trump administration, it had been said, would be to ensure the President did not press the button – the Twitter button. The run-up to the inauguration saw something of a Twitter storm. Polls called for Trump’s account to be closed. Politicians obsessed about “fake news”. High-profile Twitter executives resigned in number. I was beginning to wonder how a nice Cork girl called Sinéad McSweeney, with the face of an angel, accepted promotion to head up this new media monster, at such a pivotal stage in its life.

“It wasn’t Twitter that got Trump elected. It was print and broadcast media headlining his tweets,” McSweeney insists. “He isn’t even the biggest user – he only has 20 million followers. Katy Perry has 95 million.” And Twitter itself isn’t even that big, she says. Next week, on Internet Day, the troika of Google, Facebook and Twitter will be the discourse. But, “they are massively ahead of us. Twitter has brand recognition way beyond its size.”

We meet the day Donald Trump held his first press conference in almost six months. The ensuing political fallout is undoubtedly an argument for allowing him keyboard, as opposed to face-to-face access. Twitter’s Dublin headquarters at lunchtime is strangely removed from this maelstrom. All sweetness and light: a hip and relaxed workforce in a bright, airy space. In the communal ground floor, one wall bears the legend “Love Where You Work”. Blackboards announce the Chef’s Specials: braised lamb or baked cod. The salad and juice bars alone would make you love where you work. I chose the cod. To my surprise, nobody pays.

“With most American companies, you’re not in the game for recruitment if you haven’t benefits. There’s breakfast, dinner, lunch. We have amazing shower facilities for people who run or cycle to work, some reimbursement of gym fees and on-site yoga and circuit training classes.”

I admit to being in culture shock. I come from the old media world where talent is a sequence of lambent paragraphs, benefits is the privilege of press freedom, and lunch is paid for, literally and metaphorically – in short, you take responsibility for your words. Can life in this bubble and old media ever meet?

Invited to speak on the concept “Imagine” at a recent Tedx talk in Belfast, Sinéad McSweeney chose for her theme “What Do I Want to be When I Grow Up”. “Because it embodies the notion of growing.” Over and over she emphasised the traditional values, “empathy and respect” inculcated by her upbringing in Midleton. Twitter critics would argue that respect and social media are mutually exclusive. Justine Sacco, the woman who boarded a plane for South Africa, having tweeted a bad joke about AIDS and landed twelve hours later to find her life in ruins, shamed by tens of thousands of tweeters, is not an isolated case.

“We have become a lot better at dealing with people who have been targeted, a lot tighter on the way people can report,” says McSweeney. “Algorithms don’t do it. People do.” She’s firm about “fake news” too. “What is meant by fake news? If it’s a lie, let’s call it a lie.” And if she has a mantra, it’s “fostering good behaviour in our children.” Not what you would expect from the boss of a social media organisation.

The logistics of the Queen’s visit led her to Twitter. “I was communications director of An Garda Síochána. We had rolling road closures. I thought, Twitter is exactly what we need. Perfect for public service announcements. We set up an account and had 15,000 followers in two days.” Four and a half years ago, she moved to Twitter, having done her time. But a solid background in public service and politics (she met her husband, writer and barrister Noel Whelan, “in Fianna Fáil”) doesn’t quite explain it. This character comes from somewhere deeper.

McSweeney “meets” her international counterparts every two weeks. No viva glam here, everything is virtual. “We always have questions about people who are suspended from the platform for breaching the rules around targeted harassment. In the last year, the nuances of free speech and censorship have been much discussed. What to do if someone wants to say something but fears what will happen to them if they do.” Censorship, apparently, is the new Twitter problem. A qualified barrister by training, she would love to do a masters in free speech.

“I think about all of this from the perspective of being the mother of a seven-year-old. What do I do to make sure he is developing values of empathy and respect?” “You love being a mother,” I remark. “I kind of do. When I was growing up, it wasn’t a priority. I wasn’t the sister who was a favoured babysitter. Then when Noel and I focused on becoming parents, we found it didn’t come easy. Our son is a miracle of science. The disappointments came later as we tried to add to our family. I had the failures and miscarriages. Things like that don’t always hit you in the moment. Everyone experiences being a mother differently. Everyone experiences not being a mother differently. Everyone experiences not be able to be a mother differently. You go through all those losses without knowing you will have got anything at the end.”

Perhaps what she got was endurance, and an aptitude for the kind of critical thinking which can bring old and new media together. “On other platforms you choose your friends. Twitter is open to everyone. The company itself reflects that personality. If there is boardroom intrigue, everyone knows.” Ironically, it’s an old media story – the medium as the message – but transparency is strength.

“Can you imagine if Twitter wasn’t there?” she asks. As it happens, I can. But I am thinking.


This article appeared in a previous issue of THE GLOSS Magazine, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out Saturday March 4.

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