It’s difficult to imagine American life without social media.

How did we survive without instant access to photographs of our neighbor’s grandchildren? Isn’t life better now that everyone can provide political commentary by pushing the “share,” “send” or “retweet” buttons?

Snark aside, social media has opened a broad new avenue in dialog and communication.

There are practical applications that benefit us all. Schools can use Facebook and Twitter to announce closings for inclement weather. Municipalities can use social media to publicize boil water orders. And, police agencies can let the public know about road closures.

Ah, if only life were that simple.

As President Donald J. Trump demonstrates nearly every day, public figures using social media can be double-edged sword. Prior to the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media platforms, Americans heard from their elected and appointed figures through press conferences, newspaper stories, and radio and television interviews.

Those traditional media platforms provided plenty of potential pitfalls for political figures. But, in today’s world, the opportunity for elected officials to make regrettable statements has increased exponentially. Now, more than ever, words need to be chosen carefully.

The recent controversy surrounding Harrisburg Police Chief David Morris is a prime example.

Morris used his Facebook account to comment on NFL players protesting police brutality. He shared a meme circulating widely on the internet that facetiously stated Chicago police have replaced their vehicles’ sirens with recordings of the national anthem.

The “punch” line is that suspects will quit running and kneel when they hear the national anthem.

Morris steadfastly maintains he wasn’t making a racial statement.

However, concerned citizens, including people of color in Harrisburg, have pointed out logical progressions of the meme that can clearly be interpreted as racial in nature. And, therein lies the paradox of social media.

Only Chief Morris knows what his intentions were in making the post. At this moment, there is a larger point than what is happening in Harrisburg.

Public officials throughout Southern Illinois and the country as a whole need to take note. What you do on social media has wide-reaching implications.

Elected and appointed public figures have always been held to a higher standard than the average person, as they should be. Their actions and decisions affect us all on a daily basis. Citizens deserve to know that their public officials will serve them equally, regardless of race, color, creed or any other mitigating factor.

By pushing the “share” button, Morris, intentionally or not, sowed a seed of doubt among Harrisburg residents as to whether every single citizen will receive equal treatment. While Harrisburg needs to address the issue more thoroughly, all of us in Southern Illinois, particularly public officials, should take note.

The use of social media provides insight into a person’s psyche, their viewpoints and their underlying motivations. In the past, it was possible for politicians and public figures to blame verbal missteps on a slip of the tongue.

Social media makes that excuse less plausible. Posting something to Facebook or Twitter can be a reflexive action, but it’s also not instantaneous like blurting an answer to question. It takes time to formulate the message, and there is that crucial moment where you can decide not to hit “send.”

The Harrisburg situation also points out the need for counties, municipalities, schools and other public bodies to formulate clear social media rules and regulations. As noted earlier, public officials have always been held to a higher standard than the constituents they served.

Asking our mayors, school superintendents, police and firemen to consider the greater implications of their social media posts doesn’t seem to be too much to ask. That extra moment of reflection can save a great deal of trouble in the long term.

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