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The perils of social media: Don't feed the trolls

By Scott Tibbs, February 21, 2014

It is expected that candidates for elective office (even at the local level) will have social media profiles. Having at least a Facebook fan page and an official Twitter is considered as much of a "must" as a campaign website - and some candidates and elected officials branch out to Tumblr and Google Plus as well. But while these social media services present opportunities, they also present dangers.

Obviously, one such danger is being a Carlos Danger and disgracing yourself on a national stage like Anthony Weiner did. Other elected officials and candidates for office have posted outrageous things, if not as crass as what Weiner did. But even if you are civil and appropriate, social media presents unique dangers.

Social media allows a candidate to directly interact with voters, who can share updates with their own followers and friends. Social media also allows your content to spread quickly, as people share it with their own friends and followers. It can be used to get media attention and to stimulate people to action on legislation or issues generally. But the ability to interact directly with voters and followers can be a negative.

The first rule of social media for candidates and elected officials should be this: Do not feed the trolls. If you take a stand on a highly contentious issue (especially a social issue) you can expect your opponents to react in an emotional way, blasting away at you via comments or mentions. For every one person who responds rationally, you will get a dozen who respond incoherently and emotionally.

When a politician responds directly to trolls, he lowers himself to their level and magnifies the importance of his critics. When a mayor, a state senator or even a Congressman publicly responds to someone on social media, he highlights that person and increases that person's notoriety. It can make a politician look petty and thin-skinned when he engages directly, and it can harm that politician's reputation if he quotes obscene things that trolls say - especially when he quotes tweets from trolls that contain the "F word."

What you do not want to do is make a bunch of Internet cranks many times more important than they are. (And usually, they are not important at all, until they are elevated by a politician's public response.) Instead, it is better to use social media to spread controlled messages, point people to your website, or direct followers to take action. Getting into a back and forth with trolls and cranks gives your serious opponents ammunition to use against you. Worse yet, it almost never helps, except among the truest of true believers - and you do not need to court those people anyway.