Social media miscues take toll in the wake of Dallas ambush

Dallas police responded after shots were fired during a protest last week.
Dallas police responded after shots were fired during a protest last week. Dallas Morning News via AP

During intensely emotional situations, such as in the aftermath of last week’s slaying of five Dallas police officers and the killing of two African-American men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, logic, compassion and even decency sometimes give way to impulse, shortsightedness and irrational assumptions.

Public figures who might feel empowered to publish impromptu, 140-character personal opinions or video rants when emotions are raw and conclusions unsubstantiated, communications experts say, enter treacherous territory.

Yet a cringe-worthy number — from the Fort Worth Police Officer’s Association’s inexplicable Facebook response to a pro-Black Lives Matter tweet from Pandora Radio, to curt conservative political commentator Tomi Lahren in a tweet dubbing Black Lives Matter as the new Ku Klux Klan, to the first black Miss Alabama calling the Dallas sniper a “martyr” in a rambling, emotional video post — just can’t seem to stops themselves from stumbling into a social-media rabbit hole.

I think people just need to be really thoughtful about what they post.

Aaron Chimbel, TCU professor

“The old adage that we should always think before we speak applies to social media just like it does to words that we use,” Rita Kirk, director of SMU’s Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility, said.

“There are a lot of people who say things that they shouldn’t (on social media), people that are running for office, people in positions of power, police chiefs, celebrities and others, that it sets up a culture where everybody thinks that that’s OK. And it’s not,” Kirk said.

‘Everybody is a publisher now’

Controversial posts almost instantaneously go viral, eliciting blowback from social media users and often becoming national news. And then suddenly the posts vanish, deleted by their quick-trigger authors who apparently had second thoughts.

“What we used to do before social media is we’d be sitting at home and watching it on TV and we’d be commenting, but we’d be commenting to the television or whoever was sitting next to us,” Aaron Chimbel, associate professor of professional practice in journalism at TCU’s Bob Schieffer College of Communication said. “And now when we do it, we comment to the world potentially. Everybody is a publisher now and everybody can share their thoughts with whatever group or people who are following them, and from there it’s just exponential how it can spread.”

When Pandora’s social media brain trust thought it necessary to tweet a statement in support of “Black Lives Matter” while failing to recognize the fallen Dallas officers, the Fort Worth Police Officer’s Association quickly responded with a seditious post on Facebook. It served only to spread Pandora’s original tweet while bringing heavy cyber-condemnation upon the police association.

After urging “law enforcement supporters around the world to DELETE the Pandora Radio app from their devices,” the post went off the rails by declaring Pandora “openly supports an organization that chooses to kill American law enforcement officers.” Then it got worse, edited to read: Black Lives Matter is an organization that “chooses to MURDER American law enforcement officers.”

The old adage that we should always think before we speak applies to social media just like it does to words that we use.

Rita Kirk, SMU professor

A final edit offering a message of unity instead of divisiveness appeared before the entire post was removed from the FWPOA’s Facebook page.

Since the initial post, FWPOA president Sgt. Rick Van Houten said the organization has adopted a 24-hour policy before posting on social media — and after a discussion among board members — during controversial incidents.

Van Houten, who attended the funeral for slain Dallas police Sgt. Michael Smith on Thursday, was apologetic for the tone and language used in the original post, calling it “divisive.”

“In the aftermath of the horrendous murders of five police officers, emotions are raw, not just in the law-enforcement community, but the entire country,” said Van Houten, who said he was aware that the association was planning to publish the controversial post. “The way we communicate is much different when you allow your emotions to dictate your response versus rational thinking. The post in and of itself was definitely not the message that we want to send, and because the true intent of our message wasn’t conveyed accurately in the verbage that was used, we edited it, and even after we edited it, it still wasn’t there. It was divisive post, and that’s why decided to delete it.”

Kirk said the association’s post had the characteristics of a “rookie mistake.”

“I think it speaks as well to the fact that our social media has outgrown our policies and our training. The person that has access to the Twitter and social media account is responding in whatever way they respond, sometimes unthinkingly, and then the whole organization has the repercussions of it,” Kirk said.

Playing the blame game

The NFL and the Cleveland Browns are in damage control after running back Isaiah Crowell’s boiling frustration following the killing of the two African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota led him to post on Instagram a grotesque picture depicting a black-clad figure slitting the throat of a police officer.

Crowell, according to, posted the picture before the slaughter in Dallas. The post went viral and Crowell was harshly condemned. He quickly deleted it. On Wednesday, Crowell issued an apology on a video via Facebook, and has said he will donate his first game check, about $35,000, to the Dallas Fallen Officer Fund.

Even when public figures make ill-advised comments away from social media, social media is there to spread what would otherwise be a news story contained to those watching a particular newscast to a worldwide audience.

Such was the case when Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick called protestors in Dallas hypocrites during an interview with Fox News. And when El Paso police chief Greg Allen called Black Lives Matter “a radical hate group,” and blamed the murder of the five Dallas police officers on the group.

Patrick later lessened the harshness of his comments, telling CNN that he was frustrated that police don’t receive more support.

And Allen, El Paso’s first African-American police chief, later said: “The remarks I shared after Friday’s press conference were made during an emotional time, I hope everyone can respect that.”

In Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges took to Facebook to blast the city’s police union head, Bob Kroll, saying he made “jackass remarks” after four Minneapolis police officers walked off an off-duty job at a WNBA game.

$35,000amount Isaiah Crowell will donate to Dallas Fallen Officer Fund after making inappropriate post on Instagram.

Kroll commended the four officers for leaving their post after they became angry when Minnesota Lynx players spoke out against racial profiling and wore warm-up jerseys that read “Black Lives Matter” and also included the Dallas Police logo.

‘People just need to be thoughtful’

Instances of public figures sticking their foot in their mouths aren’t exactly new. But the impulsiveness provided by social media still is. In most cases, we can harmlessly roll our eyes, like when a tweet from Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott suggested the Dallas Cowboys’ defense is more porous than the Texas border. Or when presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tweeted his love for taco bowls served up at Trump Tower Grill on Cinco de Mayo: “I love Hispanics!” Trump wrote.

But when it comes to shocking, practically incomprehensible events involving life and death and stark racial divides, and with ramifications that can potentially affect the psyche and safety of the nation’s citizens and law enforcement officers, emotionally charged comments made on social media can be construed as divisive and dangerous.

“There’s this impulse for public figures, not just citizens, to react and comment to show they’re aware of what’s going on and that they’re engaged in these things,” TCU’s Chimbel said. “I think people just need to be really thoughtful about what they post.”

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