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Why is Social Media Such a Kiss-of-Death Politically?

by David Yee, published

The past few weeks have been full of social media faux pas, embarrassing countless politicians and organizations and costing at least one person her job. Politicians, especially national level ones, have paid speech writers who keep them on topic, concise, and above a certain amount of scrutiny in their messages. So, why do politicians have so many problems with social media?

Michigan-county assistant prosecutor Teana Walsh resigned on May 1 after posting a controversial Facebook post about the Baltimore riots:

"So i am watching the news in Baltimore and see large swarms of people throwing bricks etc at police who are fleeing from their assaults... 15 in hospital already. Solution. Shoot 'em. Period. End of discussion. I don't care what causes the protestors to turn violent.. what the "they did it because" reason is... no way is this acceptable. Flipping disgusting."  -- Teana Walsh, Facebook post.

Political organizations aren't immune from the embarrassing effects of social media, as the Senate Republican Conference found in mid-April with a not-so-well thought out tweet:

Candidates are equally likely to damage their message with the unclear, ambiguous, or unintended consequences of their social media usage. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D) had a clearly-stated and well-punctuated tweet on April 23:

But when the tweet is read aloud, because of the nature of the way the words sound, it had a racy undertone that was almost impossible for critics (and comics) to miss.

Swinging to the other side of the social media spectrum, there is the issue of lost emails and standards of use when on private devices, something that has plagued President Obama and Mrs. Clinton. This is largely because they have been the first high-ranking public officials to use mobile devices.

This is not an area of political science that has been ignored. In fact, in the scholarly literature there has been significant study and suggestions.

Ines Mergel of Syracuse University has written or co-written several papers on how the government and politicians use social media, and has suggested a very simple, three-part implementation strategy.

Social media is a unique technology in that it has been bottom-up in both usage and power. The average citizen has been the trend setter for social media usage, not the captains of industry, politicians, or celebrities -- who have often had to play "catch-up" to remain "in-touch" with the average person.

Mergel encourages a governmental implementation of social media that stays true to these roots. The beginnings of governmental usage will be in the informal usage among lower-level staff outside of the hierarchical power structure. But there's a catch.

The organization has to set the boundaries of acceptability and provide substantial training, and not leave it within the realm of "fire-from-the-hip" policy-making that only encourages mistakes and lawsuits.

Relatively-unknown assistant prosecutor Teana Walsh reached millions of people with her Facebook post. While it was her personal page, her views were completely outside of the realm of prosecutorial conduct, jeopardizing her professional effectiveness.

It is this power, the power to reach millions, that attracts politicians and candidates to social media. However, reaching millions of people under scrutiny, humiliation, and shame is hardly the power that candidates and politicians are seeking.

More thought needs to be placed on what the message is, who is receiving it, how it sounds, and what level of scrutiny it will receive. A twenty-minute speech might take a candidate's staff ten hours to develop; yet candidates are using social media without the same regard to their message and reputation.

2016 is likely to see the most social media networking ever in an American election. Candidates need to take a step back, pause, and really think about the messages they are putting out to the general public, because social media faux pas are quickly becoming the new "off-microphone guffaws" of previous elections.

Photo Credit: Quka /

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