Don’t be stupid when using social media

The Trumbull County Board of Elections last week adopted an employee “Social Media Policy” supporting the “free exchange and camaraderie” that social media brings, but warning workers about serious repercussions of overstepping on the internet — whether on or off duty. (Read it here)

That could include things like revealing confidential information about the county or its employees, engaging in posts of inappropriate material, sharing content that is, among other things, vulgar or obscene, threatening, intimidating, discriminatory, harassing or hostile, according to the policy. Engaging in such inappropriate action, the policy states, can be met with disciplinary action.

Social media policies are becoming more commonplace in the workplace, and it’s not unexpected that local government officials saw a value in adopting one.

It’s also even less surprising that it was the Trumbull County Board of Elections taking this action, given a March 2 social media post by a Board of Elections employee depicting several women from the Trumbull County Republican Party flashing obscene gestures intended for then-Republican party Chairman Randy Law.

The county Republican Party official, who also happened to work at the Board of Elections, posted the photo on her private Facebook page in March. When a Tribune Chronicle reporter asked her about it back then, she described it as “funny” and “nothing more than friends blowing off a little steam.” She said she never intended for it to be shared publicly. In fact, she seemed genuinely surprised the photo had spread publicly so quickly.

The fact is, she shouldn’t have been surprised, nor should anyone who posts anything on social media. Frankly, more people in the United States use social media today than vote. It shapes politics, economics and history.

For reasons I’ve yet to comprehend, people today seem to think it’s a good idea to broadcast matters once considered private — personal finances, family or spousal relationships, even sex — around the world 24 / 7 via social media.

Andrea Weckerle, a communications instructor at Kent State University who authored the book “Civility in the Digital Age,” points out that people should care about their online privacy because what you post and your reputation are inextricably intertwined. “Your digital footprint is used by others in decision making that impacts virtually every aspect of your life, including what college you can attend, whether you’ll be hired for that coveted job, what health insurance coverage you’ll receive, what your line of credit will be, and your dating potential and desirability as a mate,” Weckerle writes.

These are lessons that I coach my two teenage sons on frequently. Their lives are just getting started, I remind them, don’t do something stupid online that will come back to haunt you for years to come and perhaps throughout your entire adult life.

But if that unfortunate situation were to occur, youthful ignorance could be their excuse. What is the excuse of adults serving in positions of authority and public trust who make bad decisions?

A Board of Elections official denied the new social media policy was being adopted in light of the situation involving these Trumbull County GOP women. Whether or not it was, the new policy is, indeed, a good idea — provided that it does not interfere with free speech rights protected by the U.S. Constitution,or other rights protected by Ohio’s Constitution.

After all, lessons I’m teaching to my kids shouldn’t be above those followed by public employees who work for me and you.