On November 21, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback spoke with over 100 students visiting the state Capitol as part of the Kansas Youth in Government program. After the speech, one of the students, 18-year-old Emma Sullivan, used her smartphone to tweet to her 65 followers, "Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot".
In reality, Sullivan had made no such comments. She wrote the tweet merely to joke with friends. (She explained later: "Some of my friends were joking about what they’d really like to say [to Brownback], so I just took out my phone.")
Not everyone appreciated Sullivan's humor. Staffers in Governor Brownback's office who monitor social media feeds for negative comments about the governor turned up Sullivan's tweet. They were not amused.
Instead, the staffers -- who perhaps read my Internet Evolution articles and agree that teenage girls on the Internet are the greatest threat to our society today –- contacted the Youth in Government program, expressing outrage over the tweet. (Sullivan had identified herself as being at the event in previous tweets.) The Youth in Government program, in turn, contacted Sullivan's high school principal, who, in turn, summoned Sullivan to her office and spent nearly an hour scolding the 18-year-old for her tweet.
At that meeting, the principal instructed Sullivan to write an apology letter to Governor Brownback. The principal went over specific "talking points" for Sullivan to include in her apology letter, giving her a Monday, November 28, due date.
Sullivan's older sister got wind of the whole thing and alerted the news media -- which have been having a field day over the fiasco. The story went viral, as did Sullivan's #heblowsalot hashtag and related hashtags, among an American public up in arms that a young woman was being punished for criticizing an elected official –- and, more outrageously, that the official's staff was involved.
The attention and outpouring of support Sullivan received -– her Twitter following fast swelling by the thousands -- may have emboldened her to stand up for herself. On Sunday, the day before her apology letter deadline, she tweeted, "I've decided not to write the letter but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion & to be heard!"
Realizing their snafu, school officials backed down Monday, stating that Sullivan would not be punished for her refusal to write the apology letter. That same day, Governor Brownback issued an apology for his staff's overreaction.
Nonetheless, social networkers and mainstream press alike continue to blast the governor's office for reporting Sullivan's lese-majesty. The situation is reminiscent of a public controversy the grocery chain Price Chopper experienced over a year ago when one of its employees tried to get a customer fired from his job after the customer criticized Price Chopper on Twitter.
The best thing Brownback's staffers could have done was note but otherwise ignore Sullivan's tweet. Sullivan, after all, was but a teenage girl with a small following, tweeting trite teenage-girl things like "Dear edward and jacob, this is the best night of my life. I want u. Love, ur future wife #breakingdawn." Even the political tweet that gave such offense was rather bland and immature. Sullivan's was hardly a comment most Kansas voters would have taken seriously had government officials left well enough alone.
By fussing so over Sullivan's Twitter behavior, however, Governor Brownback's social media staff created a self-fulfilling prophecy -- thrusting Sullivan into the position of being a poster child for free speech and political activism. Sullivan is now perhaps more influential on social media than even Brownback himself. In less than a week, Sullivan's Twitter following has increased to over 14,800 -- more than four times that of Governor Brownback.
The lesson here for communications departments when it comes to social media is to have thick skin. Otherwise, you risk empowering and mobilizing your critics all the more.
In other words: Don't feed the trolls.
— Joe Stanganelli is a writer, attorney, and communications consultant. He is also principal and founding attorney of Beacon Hill Law in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.