The Messy Politics of Social Media


Tweet by Jason Babin

It used to be a rule on the Internet that the first one to bring up Hitler loses the argument.  This is known as Godwin’s law.

I suppose that if I “remember” the above quote, it is because I have seen it on Facebook so many times, just in different pictures.  The problem is that it is bogus, according to Deadspin’s article “Jason Babin Argues Against Gun Control By Citing Made-Up Hitler Quote”.  Frankly, I am more likely to say something about it because it is a myth than due to be for or against a particular thing.

Still, do public officials have no rights?  It seems to me that the first amendment has a lot to say about free speech, but I am amazed at the attempts to shut people down just because their views are not popular or against the views of a certain group.

So, the article that appeared online courtesy of the JournalNews recently on “Social media post getting public officials in trouble” was a bit puzzling.

Ohio School Board President Debe Terhar drew fire last week after she re-published on her personal Facebook page a friend’s picture that seemed to equate gun control efforts with the views of Adolf Hitler. Although Terhar made the post on her private account visible only to her friends, someone captured an image of the post and leaked it publicly.

Ohio Democrats have since called on Terhar, a Cincinnati-area Republican, to resign, while a prominent Jewish group called the metaphor offensive.

They did not print the picture, and so I had no frame of reference.  So, I rolled up my sleeves and started googling.  After all, I don’t recall anyone on Facebook posting something that both had Hitler in it and could offend Jews.  Well, I think I found it, and no I’m not going to post it (mostly because I cannot be sure it really is the pic).  In many ways, if it is the right pic, however, it is another example of an overblown bunch of hooey.  At the same time, I myself wouldn’t have shared it back out, if for no other reason than it’s entire premise is unsupportable.

There are a couple of things at work here, but the JournalNews only really addressed one of them.

Both cases to differing degrees show how politicians can forget their online postings are visible to everyone, and not just people who agree with them, said Dan Birdsong, a political scientist at the University of Dayton.

“Being a public servant isn’t just preaching to the choir of your party, but to serve the greater public interest,” Birdsong said.

If you are in politics, you have to assume that you are under public view and scrutiny at all times.  How many public figures have had tweets to come back and haunt them?  How many email accounts have been hacked into and the contents made public?  In Britain, they had the phone hacking scandal that in the news almost every day last year.  Public figures are, well, public.  You either need to deal with that, suffer the consequences or get out of the public eye.  I’m not backing the stalkers and the paparazzi, but perhaps it is time to just accept a dose of reality.

However, I think the article’s focus is much too narrow.  How many college students have had those drunken party pics come back to haunt them?  What is it about social media that we cannot accept is, again, public?

I wish I had bookmarked a page I was recently reading.  It mentioned that social media has become the gigantic barroom of the world.  What was once acceptable discourse only in taverns and bars is now aired out in public.  It once was the expected norm to avoid talk of sex, politics and religion in any public gathering, but now people get on Facebook and Twitter and glorify in posting messages about all three.  People used to be smart enough to know when to turn down their language, but that no longer is a barrier, either.

I don’t think it is so much that the lines have been blurred as it is that walls that used to exist have been bashed in by sledgehammers.

Perhaps it is time to start re-erecting those walls.  The consequences might be news stories like this, or it may be the loss of a job opportunity or the loss of customers – consequences which may occur even without your knowledge.