News Column

Social Media, a Double Edged Sword for Public Figures

June 12, 2013

Sometimes it seems like all of social media turns on humor, with anywhere from 15 minutes to a lifetime of fame thrust upon the coiners of clever phrases and propagators of ironic viral images.

But Memphis got a harsh reminder about the cost of a badly-landed joke Monday when news broke of the temporary suspension of Memphis Police Officer Brian Hall for statements he made via Twitter during a Ku Klux Klan rally.

Hall joins a growing roster of public employees and elected officials who now face scrutiny on an unprecedented scale thanks to the continued rise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The officer joked on his personal Twitter account, in which he identifies himself as a mixed martial artist and Memphis police officer, that bags of rocks would be available at the March 30 rally -- presumably to hurl at Klansman.

Hall, who was not on duty during the demonstration, also tweeted "If anybody have bombs they are on bus 4004," according to a summary of his disciplinary hearing.

While there seems to have been no question during Hall's disciplinary hearing that it was inappropriate for a police officer to joke about bombs, it can often be hard to predict how a statement or image posted by a public figure will be received.

"I think it's clear most of my tweets are jokes and I'm just trying to be funny and failing at it more often than not," said Memphis City Councilman Shea Flinn.

Flinn is one of several council members who is active on Twitter, though he said he his account is mostly for personal use.

Despite not listing himself as an elected official in his Twitter biography, Flinn said the key to staying out of trouble on the sometimes unpredictable social media site is to remember that nothing on Twitter is ever private.

"If you're using your own name, be prepared to stand by what you say ... and be ready to apologize if necessary," Flinn said.

Before he tweets, Flinn asks himself, "Do I really want to say this? Is it worth it if it becomes a news story?"

In a well-publicized mistake earlier this year, congressman Steve Cohen tweeted an affectionate message to a young woman who turned out to be an adult daughter the public didn't know he had.

"The blogger and the media and the trade publications in Washington, they all immediately pounced on the fact that the tweet was deleted, that there was something salacious," Cohen said. "They were entirely wrong."

Cohen said he often likes to inject humor into his tweets when he can, but that more often than not "jokes don't always come across well in print, limited to 140 characters."

Roughly 135,000 people sign up to use Twitter everyday, and there are just under 555 million active account holders worldwide.

Shelby County Commissioner Chris Thomas is no longer one of them.

Once an active user, Thomas said he deleted most of his social media presence after it started to feel it was "consuming" him.

"I had to make the decision I felt like was best for me and my family," Thomas said. "It can take over, it's like another relationship you have."

But during his more active, "out front" Twitter days Thomas said he couldn't recall a time when he'd been busted for tweeting something he shouldn't have or had large numbers of people take offense at one of his jokes.

It's something Thomas attributes mostly to an abundance of caution.

"Once you put it out there," he said, "there's no deleting it."

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Source: (c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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