When Things Turn Nasty on Social Media

For an elected official, it's a challenge to decide when to block ill-mannered commenters and when to just let them have at you.
March 17, 2015
By Mike Schlossberg  |  Contributor
Mike Schlossberg is a Democratic Pennsylvania state representative from Allentown and a social-media consultant.

There's no question about it: Social media can bring elected officials and constituents closer together. Generally speaking, this is a fantastic development for democracy. Average citizens can now stay better informed about the policies, initiatives and votes of their elected officials. At the same time, they have easier access to the officials who represent them.

Of course, there are times when this all goes completely to hell. A brief review of comments left on the White House's official Facebook page yields the following gems:

Hammond C.: "obama loves michelle......lol....michelle, if that is even a woman… obama is legendary in the chicago gay community..."

David C.: "God bless our President? Don't you mean Allah?"

Pam M.: "democommies measure success on the number they can get on welfare, republicans measure success on the number they help to get OFF welfare"

And that's just some of the stuff that's acceptable for print.

If you are an elected official who uses social media, you know exactly what I am talking about: That nut job who thinks you are in bed with "Big [Insert Lobby Here]," the one who thinks you are part of the great liberal conspiracy to take away everyone's guns/children/religion, or that lunatic who is convinced that if you are conservative you must hate black people.

Constituents like these pose a challenge for elected officials: When, and how, do you respond to constituent questions on social media? Then there's a corollary: When do you let angry constituents rant, and when is it appropriate to delete their comments and block them?

The key question is this: Is someone looking for a real answer to a legitimate question, or perhaps a genuine debate on an important issue? Or do they just want to "troll" -- sowing discord, insults and inflammatory garbage? If a constituent really wants an answer, then, of course, it is totally appropriate to engage. If you have the time and the inclination (and, perhaps even more importantly, if the person trying to debate you is someone you actually represent), feel free to respond with facts and information of your own. Keep the conversation respectful, but if someone challenges your beliefs, don't hesitate to return fire.

If someone just wants to yell at you, do not engage. Discerning the motive of a poster on Facebook or Twitter can be hard, but here are a few questions you can ask that help determine the answer:

• Are they insulting you or your political party?

• If the words they used were asked in person, would you be offended?

• Even if the tone of a particular question is civil, have they written to you in the past in a manner that would give an affirmative answer to either of the above questions?

Generally speaking, if the answer to any of the above is yes, ignore whatever that person is typing. Don't engage with someone who isn't looking for an honest, fair and open debate; no good comes from it.

That, however, leads to the more difficult question: When do you delete a constituent's comments and block them from future posts? Generally speaking, it's safer to err on the side of free speech rather than blocking. Yes, that isn't fun: It means that someone will have a largely free rein for insulting you and your policies. That being said, in a democracy words aren't always nice, and it's not appropriate to block someone just because they do not like you. However, there are some circumstances in which that's a step you should take:

• When a poster is using vulgarity or insulting entire groups (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.).

• When someone is threatening or implying violence.

• When someone is launching specific and clearly slanderous attacks on an elected official -- for example, alleging corruption when no clear evidence exists.

• When a person is directing vicious personal insults at other commenters.

Make sure you have a prominent link to a social-media policy that lays out when someone's comments will be deleted and they will be blocked from further contributions to the page. This avoids any ambiguity about when a poster's words cross the line from acceptable free speech to unacceptable hate speech.

Getting social media right is hard, and allowing someone to attack you, on your own personal, agency or jurisdictional social media, is harder. But isn't that the nature of being an elected official? At its core, democracy is about average citizens being able to connect with and influence their elected representatives, and social media makes that happen even if the words posed aren't pleasant. To that end, it's always better to err on the side of openness and free speech. However, free speech doesn't mean that you have to allow your Facebook or Twitter page to turn into a war zone.