When Social Media Bites Back

When I moved to the small town of Rome, Georgia, I was advised never to say anything bad about person A in front of person B, because you don’t know who is related to whom. The Internet is like a small town in this way. You never know where your comment will wind up. If your comment arouses someone’s host him himility, they may find out who is related to you and slander them in return.

Something very like this happened recently here in Florida. One of our branch officers (I’ll call her Peggy) expressed her own opinion on her own Facebook page regarding a popular woman TV personality. Offended by this personality’s confrontational style, Peggy called her an unflattering name in her post. Now, it seems that once Peggy ran for local office, and helpful friends linked her Facebook account to a Twitter account to maximize her exposure. She was not aware it was still linked when she made her explosive comment, but it was from that Twitter account that another Twitter user retrieved her comment, found out she was an officer of AAUW, and proceeded to condemn her and Florida AAUW. He had found out she was an AAUW officer by connecting her with a newspaper article.

Of course, national AAUW has a feed whereby they can see anything in the media regarding AAUW. So the next step in this viral contagion was that AAUW’s national advancement officer, Kendra Davis, contacted our president, Pat Ross, and suggested that we ask Peggy to publish a retraction. Peggy’s Twitter adversary had 66,000 followers. The national officer recommended that Peggy state on Facebook that her opinion was not the opinion of Florida AAUW. Peggy complied, posting on her Facebook page that her opinions were her own and not those of Florida AAUW. Nothing more has come of the flap since then.

Since I felt that there was a public policy dimension to all this, I consulted with Elizabeth Holden of the public policy office. She assured me that this sort of thing is the purview of membership and advancement. If the negative publicity had occurred in connection with an advocacy event or project, the national public policy office would have helped the branch to deal with it. Elizabeth assured me that Kendra did not intend to censor members.

I have seen the tweets, but at this time I agree with Elizabeth that since “the story didn’t get legs”, we may just take it as a cautionary tale. So what may we learn from this disappointing experience?

First, we must understand that nothing in cyberspace is ever private. It is as public as if we had shouted it out like a street preacher. Fortunately, it is also evanescent, but it is possible to retrieve anything that we have ever put out there. If someone has an ill will toward us, it is possible to dredge up damaging information, even if we ourselves did not put the information there (the newspaper article, for example: most newspapers are online today.) Therefore, we must be ready to defend every expression we make public in any medium.

If we must defend anything we say in public, it follows that what we say needs to reflect our best, most principled and civil self. We need to save our primal screams for our most trusted friends, or better yet for our trips far out into the forest or the ocean. The good news is that always to take the high ground, as Michelle Obama said, is uplifting and ennobling. When Peggy consented to post that her opinions were her own and not those of Florida AAUW, she took the high ground.

It would be a disaster for AAUW advocacy if we all concluded that we must be silent.The only way that any group can avoid criticism today is never to take any kind of a stand at all. We cannot be cowed. We can and must be civil but we must not hide our heads. I am always telling people why I joined AAUW, but I sometimes leave out a few details. I used to watch groups of women walking down the hall in my college saying that they were going to an AAUW meeting. They were very staid, respectable type ladies, one of whom was the head librarian, Mary Mac Mosley.  Then one day, after the publication of “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” an article appeared in our local paper stating that AAUW was a radical feminist group. I decided that if Mary Mac was a member of this radical feminist group maybe I should be too. The detail that I keep leaving out was that AAUW was in fact attacked in our local paper (attacks were a little milder back then).Him him

Don’t forget the last [Christian] Beatitude: “Blessed are ye when men revile you…for my sake.” But make sure it is for the sake of right. Do keep speaking out in support of our advocacy efforts with passion and strong, well informed opinion.

Author: Pat DeWitt

I am a retired institutional researcher, a musician and musicologist, and support AAUW as well as several environmental causes.

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