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Public service in the age of social media

Social media is a powerful tool for information dissemination, providing individuals the ability to spread their thoughts, comments and opinions well beyond the circle of friends and family members they’d otherwise reach using in-person communications or telephone conversations. Because these posted thoughts and comments are unfiltered and sometimes spewed in the heat of a moment when emotion overpowers reason, the negative backlash to them can be considerable.

Two local officials got a firsthand taste of such backlash recently when their online comments were deemed by many to be distasteful at best and hateful at worst. Stonington police commissioner Robert O’Shaughnessy and Groton Board of Education member Gretchen Newsome both faced a firestorm of angry reactions and calls for their resignations — including us, in the case of O’Shaughnessy — after making controversial postings on Facebook.

Among Newsome’s online comments was her reply to a post about protests calling for equality and an end to racism in all its forms. The post to which she reacted concluded with the words, “BE PROUD TO BE WHITE! It’s not a crime YET... But getting very close!” Her comment included this sentence: “How many lives will be lost by people acting like uneducated savages.”

O’Shaughnessy reposted a widely shared canned post that encompassed a long list of grievances under the heading, “We’ve become a nation that has lost its collective mind.” Much of the list easily can be interpreted as racist, homophobic and intolerant of diversity.

Newsome has resigned her post, while O’Shaughnessy said he won’t resign and publicly stated that he has come to see the posts were an error in judgment.

For those in the public’s eye, after-the-fact reaction to social media rants are not enough. Public officials must take the time to stop and think before they post, share, comment about and pass along information on social media. It’s their responsibility to have a full understanding of the potential impact of their words, the words they repost, and the origins of the messages they pass along. While sites such as Facebook have improved their efforts to control some content, much information passed along originates from fake or robot-generated accounts with the sole purpose of fomenting dissent and deepening divisions in our already polarized country.

Political leaders who recruit candidates for public office, particularly local office, also share the responsibility to head off imprudent social media rants by public officials. While we understand it’s challenging to find people willing and able to serve in public office, political town committees need to go beyond simply finding bodies to fill out slates. Potential candidates must be told about the full extent of the responsibility of holding public office. Having a responsible and respectful social media presence needs to be high on that list. Understanding what that involves should be explained.

Facebook has existed for 16 years and in that time has grown well beyond its origins as a means of casual conversation among college students. In fact, most college students have moved to other platforms.

It’s a powerful communication tool with many benefits for users who understand it. On the other hand, it also has a tremendous potential to cause damage, as does social media generally. That damage can come both from those who don't grasp the potential reach of social media and from those who are well aware of its power.

Our Constitution grants all of us free speech rights. But public officials must balance this with their responsibility to represent all their constituents and it is not acceptable if they − even if through ignorance − pass along hurtful, damaging communications. There should be no place for racism and intolerance in public office.

And public officials must remember that others have the right to respond, including calling for their resignations, if they find the comments disqualifying.

Newsome made the correct choice to resign in the aftermath of her controversial comments. O’Shaughnessy said he sought, through conversations with many including representatives of the NAACP, to understand how his comments were hurtful and divisive. We are skeptical, however, that he didn’t understand the content of the posts he shared or recognize their intolerant, racist, homophobic words.

As local political leaders think ahead to the 2021 municipal election year, they should prepare now to work to prevent such future social media fiascos and strive to assure that the candidates they field will respectfully represent all constituents.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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