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Politicians find Twitter can be dangerous to their reputations

Trouble often awaits when high-profile folks fail to heed the unwritten ground rules of social media.

The use of social media, it’s often said, is a conversation. And that’s true. But like any conversation, there are certain unspoken ground rules.

Break those rules on social media, especially Twitter, and you may quickly discover that the whole world will remind you of it. Just ask Minnesota politicians Pat Garofalo and Ryan Winkler.

Garofalo, a Republican state representative from Farmington, was blasted recently for a tweet that appeared to paint NBA players as criminals-in-waiting.

Winkler, a Democratic representative from Golden Valley, drew criticism last year when he used the phrase “Uncle Thomas” to describe U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in an angry tweet about the court’s decision in a key voting rights case.

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Garofalo and Winkler are hardly the only people, politicians or otherwise, to get in trouble on Twitter. Some others:

  • Mike Parry, a former Republican state senator from Waseca, referred to President Obama as a “power hungry arrogant black man” in a tweet. He later failed to get his party’s nomination for a congressional seat and is no longer in the Senate.
  • CNN Middle East Editor Octavia Nasr was fired after outrage over a tweet in which she praised a Lebanese ayatollah linked to terror bombings that killed hundreds of Americans.
  • British politician Stuart MacLennan was drummed out of the Labour Party after a series of offensive tweets, including one that referred to senior citizens as “coffin dodgers.”
  • Most famously, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York resigned in disgrace from the fallout after tweeting a sexually suggestive photo of himself to a young woman not his wife.

All these people forgot some of the basic rules of Twitter. They’re not really written down anywhere, but common sense will tell you most of them:

  • Don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper. In fact, anything you tweet could be seen by millions of people around the world. Weiner’s junk certainly was.
  • Twitter doesn’t do nuance. When Nasr tweeted her “respect” for deceased Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, she later clarified that she meant he had an enlightened attitude toward human rights. But that wasn’t in her original tweet. Don’t expect to make a subtle point in 140 characters.
  • Stick to topics you know well and care deeply about. You’re more likely to make an uninformed, stupid statement if you jump into the latest cultural trend of the moment in an effort to show how edgy and with-it you are.
  • Avoid controversial topics. If you simply must tweet about a divisive issue, get someone you trust to look at your tweet first.
  • Don’t tweet jokes about tragedies.
  • When all else fails, remember the old maxim: It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Society has spent thousands of years devising rules to control the id. Twitter unleashes it. Until every Twitter account comes with a built-in super-ego, wise users will keep their social conversations more on the level of a Victorian drawing room than a Pig’s Eye saloon.