3 Ways Social Media Is Challenging Public Officials

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Three Ways Social Media Is Challenging Public Officials

The private lives of public officials and celebrities have long been a point of curiosity for those people who have never lived in the public eye. Since the 15th century invention of the printing press, sensational news stories have traveled more quickly than by word of mouth. As radio and television grew in popularity, events that would otherwise be known to only a select few began to reach the entire nation and beyond.

In the early days of information technology, news organizations focused primarily on officials’ public lives, with certain private details considered off limits. For example, media outlets disregarded the extramarital affairs of former president John F. Kennedy, and the everyday childhood of presidential children is also left out of the limelight.

In the modern news cycle, however, even small details can be elevated and sensationalized. For example, after the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, prosecuting attorney Chris Darden had his private life analyzed and dissected in a film documenting the trial.

With the rise of reality television and growing acceptance of media coverage of private lives, social media has also begun to create difficulties for public officials and celebrities who used to have more privacy.

Public Officials Tweet Themselves Out of Office

Social media has become a favorite communication platform for public officials and politicians to reach young voters. For some politicians, social media like President Obama’s infamous ‘Call Me Maybe’ voice clip mashup can even be a great tool to boost approval numbers. However the number of people losing their job over tweets, Facebook status updates, and Instagram posts has skyrocketed. On the internet, someone is always watching. This is especially true when it comes to public officials, celebrities, and community leaders. People can repeatedly scrutinize offensive or misguided statements made by their leaders, thanks to the data cloud, and streaming media.

For example, in November 2016, Beverly Whaling, the mayor of a small West Virginia town, made a remark about First Lady Michelle Obama that was deemed racist in a Facebook post, which immediately went viral. Though the post was soon deleted, the outcry over social media was nearly instantaneous, and Whaling was pressed to resign in just a matter of days.

More extreme is the tale of Rob Ford, former mayor of Toronto, who was recorded smoking crack cocaine and ousted for this behavior when the gang members who recorded him began using the film to attempt extortion. As police began developing a case against the gang members and proving Ford’s drug use, the situation spiraled into a media scandal. Though the issue directly affected Toronto, the story drew worldwide attention. After a long-running campaign to remove Ford from power, he was stripped of all executive and budgetary powers, though he remained in office with his reputation ruined. These examples illustrate just how crippling a few ill-informed actions and thoughtless social media posts can be to a public official’s career.

Controversial Tweets from the Oval Office

Donald Trump, a proficient Twitter user, has entered into his presidency in an unprecedented social media environment. Some would argue that having an unfiltered view into a president’s thoughts is beneficial to the public, allowing them to experience a unique perspective into a world leader’s mind. Others view his tweets as dangerous, unprofessional and damaging to the office of the President. Trump makes what are arguably contradictory statements, false accusations, and unproven assertions, which impacts the public’s opinion. Though the president’s worldview can’t be fully ascertained from his tweets, many use them to make assumptions about his policies and ideas.

Social Media Puts Scandalous Behavior Under a Magnifying Glass

With unfiltered social media, citizens can see people who they otherwise respect or admire in a sensational light. For example, former Congressman Anthony Weiner is infamous for texting explicit images to women and being forced to resign in the aftermath. When Weiner, a married man, began sharing explicit photographs with other women, the public was eager to learn as many facts as possible. Consequently, his professional and private life was thrown into disarray. Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, was a senior aide to Hillary Clinton. This close proximity to Clinton exacerbated the scandal, making Abedin’s separation from her husband a public affair. The search for Clinton emails fed into the scandal, when Abedin’s home computer was subpoenaed and searched.

Social media also spotlights behavior by members of the U.S. military. Since the military lifted its ban against using social media on work computers in early 2010, tech-savvy members of the Armed Forces have taken to its use, though sometimes in inappropriate ways. One such instance involved the Wisconsin National Guard. A guardsman uploaded a photo of soldiers striking comedic poses surrounding an empty coffin that was draped with an American flag. The caption for the photograph read “We put the FUN in funeral.” This resulted in the guardsman being indefinitely suspended from military funeral duty. In another controversial situation, an Army private posted a picture showing her claiming to evade the flag salute by hiding in her car. This offense could be met with a two-year prison sentence if she was found guilty in a court-martial.

Positive side of social media

Unfortunately, internet news frequently highlights the most negative aspects of human behavior. In this environment, public officials must carefully consider their actions and the needs of the public lest they face a backlash with career-altering consequences. However, online communication can also be a tool for great good, connecting leaders with the public in a way that was not possible in the past. Digital networks, such as SF72.org, provide an invaluable resource for informing the public and helping citizens of the city prepare for unexpected yet inevitable emergencies small and large. Similarly, the San Francisco Police Department’s Twitter accounts allow for immediate access to authorities for reporting crimes ensuring fast responses. It is up to public officials to use social media to the public’s benefit and ensure that the good far outweighs the bad, knowing that bad stories will always make the front page, while good deeds and services, as they are expected, tend to get less attention.

Learn More

If you seek to change the world on a local, national, or global level, the University of San Francisco is a great place to start. By learning more about the University of San Francisco Online Master of Public Administration (MPA), you will be taking an important first step toward pursuing your professional goals and commitment to social justice. Our program is designed for professionals who want to become effective managers and civic leaders who affect change through policy management and advocacy.









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