Social Media: Elected officials should set a better example

Last month, a Parkersburg resident asked City Council to consider adopting a social media policy for city employees. She made it clear at the time that her suggestion was motivated by the social media activity of a particular elected official; and City Attorney Joe Santer explained such a policy could not be made to apply to elected officials such as the mayor or city council members.

Over the weekend a city council member posted a comment on social media that, at best, was a case of extraordinarily poor judgment in the moment. Whatever the explanations for the post, the consequences have reverberated across the country. National media outlets have picked up on it, and the commenters on those stories (of course, displaying their own lapses in judgment) are seizing on it to make generalizations about elected officials — and the citizenry– of Parkersburg.

In this era of post first, ask questions later, it is another blow to our region’s reputation.

When asked in September about the possibility of a social media policy, Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce said “I don’t believe Facebook is a proper venue for debate, and I’ve encouraged those on City Council to cease their practice of using and reading Facebook for political reasons.”

It was good advice, but it was not heeded.

Elected officials have a right to their opinions, as do we all. They have a right to express those opinions.

But that right does not free them from responsibility for the consequences of such expression. As elected officials, they must remember those consequences will be felt by those they represent, too.

Perhaps a set of social media guidelines for elected officials would be useful, even if they have no teeth. Council should consider adopting language that reminds elected officials of their responsibility to the people they were chosen to serve.

In the meantime, those elected officials — and all of us, really — should use this example to remind us to THINK before posting. How might this be interpreted? Am I falling into a trap set by trolls? What might be the consequences? What are my intentions in posting/responding? Am I hedging my bets that outrage over crude, divisive comments will be worth it, because it might stir up support among those whose political beliefs amount to “the opposite of whatever the ‘other side’ just said?”

Plenty of good can come out of social media, if it is used with discretion. But it takes very little to turn those positives into painful negatives. Elected officials bear responsibility for those negatives at a higher degree than the rest of us.

We will all be better off, then, when they choose to set a better example.