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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:50 PM ET, 11/28/2011

When Twitter takes on authority, it’s a mismatch

November’s umpteenth First Amendment brushfire comes courtesy of 18-year-old Emma Sullivan of Shawnee Mission East High School in Kansas. Sullivan is the one who last week tweeted some harsh comments about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) after a speech that she attended. It has now become the latest most famous tweet in America:

Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot

Following that muscular use of her right to free expression, Sullivan got hammered. Her principal asked her to apologize, goaded by event organizer Youth in Government, which was goaded by Brownback’s office. She refused and ultimately received an apology from Brownback, regretting the “over-reaction” of his staff.

Just what got into Brownback’s people? Why chase a vendetta against some un-famous tweep? That’s the question posed to ABC News by Emma Sullivan’s sister-cum-spokesperson, 19-year-old Olivia Sullivan:

“My parents, first of all, think it was highly inappropriate for the governor’s office to flag her tweet. It was a misuse of their time and a misuse of their power,” Olivia Sullivan said. “There have been worse things said about Gov. Brownback from people who matter much more politically.”

Leave it to a budding family flack to articulate just why Twitter mortifies powerful people. Before this medium gave just about everyone out there a micro-blogging platform, a governor’s staff knew where the incoming fire would originate. Politicians expect “people who matter much more politically” to bash them. They’re trained to deal with those types.

Twitter then came along and widened the battlefield. Now the shots come from all over the place, and who knows which voices are outliers and which represent the feelings of a peer group? As in the case of a young and motivated citizen like Emma Sullivan: If someone like her was out there openly dissing the governor, what did this say about him? Does the governor have a youth problem? How many others agree with Emma Sullivan? Should we do something about this?

Absolutely! Brownback’s people reacted to dissonance on Twitter the way many people in positions of authority have before: Get control of the situation. You can just hear the control-freakiness in this statement:

“That wasn’t respectful,” Brownback’s communications director Sherriene Jones-Sontag said. “It was important for the organization to be aware of the comments their students were making.”

Boiled down a bit, Emma Sullivan’s comments read like this: “I oppose Governor Brownback.” How could an organization titled Youth in Government — or any high school — have a problem with such a declaration?

Now that all the entities on the Emma Sullivan Clampdown axis have sullied themselves in attempting to stifle her, maybe the political world will inch a bit closer to an iron rule of social-media management. If you have a problem with something on Twitter, deal with it on Twitter. Remedies such as seeking an apology behind the scenes will backfire.

Next time Brownback’s monitors find a headstrong teenager bashing the guv with a tweet, best just to retweet the item. That’ll put the offending thoughts in front of the governor’s followers, who can collectively handle the demand for an apology.

By  |  04:50 PM ET, 11/28/2011

 
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