Social media is a harsh task master. It keeps score, detailing the number of likes, follows, pins and, of course, comments. It holds the promise of enhancing and expanding citizen engagement. But social media also has a darker underbelly where risk-averse public officials fear to tread. Disagreeable comments are seen as disruptive in their well ordered world and can induce a panicked response. The conventional wisdom is to take negative comments in stride and be patient. That can prove to be a tall order in practice.
Ask Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. A post on his Facebook page in late June expressing disappointment in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) decision attracted a thousand comments in the first 24 hours, a number that has since at least doubled.
Big numbers equals social media success worth bragging about, right? Not this time. The exact number of comments is unclear because staff in the governor’s office deleted some comments, initially defending the action on the basis of the office’s policy prohibiting obscenity, vulgarity and personal attacks. It prompted an apology the next day from the governor. “On careful review, it appear [sic] that this was not always the case and some comments were being deleted simply because they expressed disagreement with my position,” wrote Pence. “I regret that this occurred and sincerely apologize to all those who were affected.”
Pence went on to clarify that his staff would soon post an updated, improved policy. He further affirmed his respect for Hoosiers’ opinions and free speech in general. The governor’s unequivocal, and generally well received, apology couldn’t redeem the original botched staff response, which became a catalyst for a new anticensorship site linked to the governor’s name—pencership.com—and a separate Facebook page for and by those whose comments had been deleted or who had been blocked altogether after the DOMA flap.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) experienced the same kind of escalation with one of its most persistent critics. In May, WMATA’s official Twitter account blocked FixWMATA, the social handle of self-styled watchdog Chris Barnes. The act of blocking Barnes lent him a certain air of celebrity, even credibility, in local media. It was enough to catalyze a group of area Twitter users, including Barnes, to create a rider advocacy group called MetroTAG. Barnes has since left D.C. for Houston, but in his absence is a more permanent opposition than a one-man blog and Twitter feed could ever have managed.
In both examples, social media policies were in place but were too narrowly construed and overzealously applied. When you find yourself explaining, you’re losing. The winners—if there are any—are the people whom the governor’s office and transit authority sought to limit. Government actions make critics larger than they are and embolden them in opposition.
The actions also risk touching a constitutional third rail by attempting to limit speech in what may have become a designated public forum, where government restrictions are subject to severe court scrutiny. There is no settled law on when government websites and social accounts are opened to public comment, but it has the makings of an important and complicated test case.
There are options. As a public official or designated agency moderator, you can respond to clarify facts or answer questions, or ignore, particularly if the comments are imbued with anger (ad hominem attacks and ALL CAPS). You could also trust your social media community to self-correct, such that critics and supporters talk it out among themselves without your direct involvement.
This column originally appeared in GOVERNING magazine.