Beware the social media mobs

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Social media is a dangerous place, for political and business leaders alike - not to mention journalists. Tweets, Facebook posts and other social media output can be fraught with peril, resulting in ridicule or worse. And the consequences are not necessarily undeserved.

That means there are important lessons to be gleaned about knowing and understanding your audience before you send your musings out into the social media ecosystem.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau learned that the hard way over the weekend, when he sent a breezy little tweet to Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, pledging $50 million in Canadian taxpayer dollars to a charity that helps kids affected by conflicts, natural disasters or other crises. There’s no question it’s a noble cause. And while the money had been allocated weeks ago, according to the government, that fact got overshadowed and lost by Trudeau’s flippant tweet, which appeared to concern itself as much with impressing Noah as it was in making a major donation of taxpayer dollars.

Not surprisingly, he was raked over the coals by the Twitter mob for “sucking up to a celebrity.”

And how about Slate, which ran a snarky piece suggesting George H.W. Bush’s service dog, Sully, did not deserve all the social media love he was getting since he’d only worked for the late president for a few months? “This was clearly written by a cat” was perhaps the gentlest of the thousands of outraged barbs that came Slate’s way. It was a puzzling self-inflicted wound for the online publication. Who isn’t aware that social media is a massive hive of animal lovers of every political stripe? Cats and dogs have not become the rock stars of the internet for nothing, and animal love is among the dwindling few subject matters the masses can agree upon.

Business leaders have also learned the hard way what happens when they tweet out dubious sentiments. The Campbell Soup’s vice-president of government affairs lost his job when he tweeted out that George Soros’s foundation was assisting the so-called migrant caravan bound for the United States. The fury was so intense he deleted his Twitter account, but that failed to save his job.

The lesson here? Know your audience. And on social media, remember that everything you post is visible to everyone who follows you, not just those who you think would find your tweet funny and appropriate.

Social media mobs can careen out of control quickly. If you’re running a business or a country, tread carefully, and err on the side of caution. Don’t court controversy. Play it safe. Always ask yourself: Is this the right place to express this sentiment? If you’re fuming about something or trying to impress someone, the answer is probably no, and a more private channel is appropriate.

Remember that once you post, taking back your words -- especially if you’re a high-profile figure -- is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube: Messy, difficult and largely futile.