U.S. Department of Education sends out insensitive tweet, then tries to hold #AskFAFSA

FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and is the program for college loans that is run by the U.S. Department of Education.  They have become the latest government agency to commit not one, but two major social media sins:

  • Attempting to use a meme and having it backfire ridiculously.
  • Holding an #Ask event and having it turn into a disaster.

Considering how much I owe in student loans, I should probably not do this blog entry, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the background.  First, in an attempt to encourage people to fill out the FAFSA, FAFSA’s Twitter account sent out this tweet:

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For those of you who don’t know, that’s actually Kristen Wig during a scene in the movie Bridesmaids.  I definitely didn’t know that and I’m not the only one. This tweet looked insensitive to poor people, and as you can imagine, the internet reacted accordingly, with numerous major media outlets covering the snafu.

The tweet was deleted and FAFSA apologized in a tweet, as well as a longer statement:

We apologize for this insensitive Twitter post, which flies in the face of our mission of opening doors of opportunity for every student,” said Dorie Nolt, the spokeswoman. “It was an ill-conceived attempt at reaching students through social media. We are reviewing our process for approving social media content to ensure it reflects the high standards we expect at the U.S. Department of Education.

That would be bad enough, but it got even worse for the folks at the Department of Education, because days prior, they had started advertising for an #AskFafsa event, where anyone could submit their questions via the hashtag.  The event was scheduled to be held the day after the insensitive tweet was published, and at first, FAFSA tried to continue with the event.  Sample tweets included:

Realizing this was a terrible idea, the event was cancelled:

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In a statement on their Facebook page, the Department of Education said:

@FAFSA will not be holding tonight’s scheduled Twitter ‪#‎AskFAFSA‬ Office Hours. Our goal is to provide resources and tools to help students and families make informed decisions about the college going process. We value your input and are committed to bringing you information in a relevant way. For those of you who have already submitted questions for #AskFAFSA Office Hours we will answer you directly. If you have additional questions about your student loan please contact your student loan servicer: http://1.usa.gov/1iGN7qU

To their credit, they still answered many of the (legitimate) questions they received.

As I’ve noted before, these #Ask or #My events are just awful ideas.  If you have a certain level of prominence or controversy, and not enough supporters, you will get bombarded with negative questions that are meant to insult and troll.  The purpose of holding an event like this is to be able to answer legitimate questions, but too often, the noise drowns out your good intentions.  Holding events like these are simply not going to work.

As for the errand Bridesmaid tweet, two things went wrong.  First, the author of the tweet wrongly assumed that readers would get the reference.  Second, the Department of Education should never do anything that implies that it takes student debt lightly.  As millions of young adults (like me!) can testify, college loans are a major crisis in this country.  The Department of Education should be finding ways to make education more affordable, not trying to use cute internet memes.  It was an attempt at humor, which isn’t a bad thing, but it missed…badly.  It’s better to be serious and genuine than funny and offensive.

What do you think?  Should the government event touch memes, or leave those to the experts?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

The Fake Follower problem

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As noted by this Politico story, fake followers on Twitter are a problem for most elected officials.  A brief examination reveals that many high level elected officials have a high percentage of fake followers, including:

  • President Obama: 46.8% fake followers
  • Senator John McCain: 23.8%
  • Hillary Clinton: 21.9%
  • Chris Christie: 18.9%

These numbers are embarrassingly high.  Though it is possible intentionally inflate your follower count by seeking companies that can gain you fake followers (know as bots), it is also very likely that most elected officials have nothing to do with their high amount of fake followers, who simply follow them because they are popular accounts and following other accounts help to make bots look more real.  It’s also important to note that this is not an exact science – far from it – and it is often impossible to know if accounts are real or fake.

A few points on dealing with this:

How you can tell if you have fake followers

There are numerous websites that you can use to determine if you have fake followers on any account – including your own.  Fake Followers is one such example.  Just plug in a username and the website will tell you how many of your followers are fake.  In each case, you have to authorize the app to let it access your Twitter account.  For me, Fake Followers said that 96% of my followers were good, with 1% inactive and 3% suspecious or empty.  From there, you can also block the accounts that Fake Followers identifies as fake from following you.  I will say that at least two of the accounts that were labelled as “fake” were real and new, so again, it’s not foolproof.

How to prevent fake followers

Unfortunately, that’s hard to do.  There are apps like Blockfak that will allow you to automatically block fake followers, but as we’ve already established, those aren’t foolproof, so that may not be the best way to go.  Beyond that, fake followers are, more or less, a part of the Twitterverse.

Any thoughts to add?  Let me know in the comments!

Secretary to Mexican President in hot water over offensive tweet

In honor of the U.S. vs. Germany World Cup game today, here is a World Cup related social media and politics fail:  Erwin Lino, the private secretary to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, has found himself in trouble for a controversial photo that he tweeted last week.

First, here’s the tweet:


The caption reads, “Honduran soccer team on the way to Brazil.”  By way of context: immigration into Mexico has increased lately, primarily as a result of accelerated violence and hunger.  Central American immigrants have thus fled their home country and sought entrance to Mexico, and the humanitarian crisis has reached a point that Vice President Biden traveled to Central America last week, in order to speak with affected countries about finding solutions to the issue.  The picture itself is a reference to La Bestia or El Tren De La Muerte, which is a train that runs from Central America, into Mexico, carrying thousands of passengers, including many who cling to its exterior.  At least three people have died on the train.

Lino has deleted the tweet, but the damage was obviously done.  Lino’s response?  Surprise – he said he was hacked!  In a tweet, Lino said that his account has been used “by someone other than me.”  Lino said that he changed the password, and added, “An apology for the tweet published earlier.”

Unsurprisingly, according to published news accounts, people are not buying Lino’s explanation that he was hacked.  As of now, Lino still has his job.

The lesson: If you are staff to important people, your visibility increases as well, and you are automatically held to a higher standard by the media and the general public.  Don’t think that you are still anonymous because you are not the actual elected official.

Campaign Manager for New Mexico gubernatorial candidate resigns after sexist tweets

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Gary King (D) is the Attorney General of New Mexico and Democratic nominee for Governor.  King is now in trouble because of the tweets sent by his (former) campaign manager, Steve Verzwyvelt.

Using his Twitter account (which is now protected), Verzwyvelt sent a series of sexist and offensive tweets in 2011-2012.  The story was first reported by the conservative Washington Free Bacon.  Examples included:

  • “Valentines tip: candy is dandy but liquor is quicker #happyvalentinesday”
  • “Fat girls should not wear bikini’s! #spisspringbreak2012”
  • “Belly dancers :) for Earth Day”
  • On former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney:  “elitiest asshat.”
  • On Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Louisiana Senator David Vitter:  “douchebags.”

And more:

Verzwyvelt1 Verzwyvelt2 Verzwyvelt3 Verzwyvelt4 Verzwyvelt5

When first contacted by the Washington Free Bacon, Verzwyvelt said, “My account was hacked in the first part of February, that could have been it.  It was hacked the first part of the year.  I don’t know what happened, that could have been some of that.”  Well, that’s absurd, for multiple reasons:

  1. No one hacks an account for the purpose of putting out the sporadic offensive tweet.
  2. The tweets came out in 2011-2012, not just the “first part” of the year.
  3. The tweets in question weren’t deleted – if your account was hacked, wouldn’t you delete any offensive tweets?

In the end, Gary King announced that Verzwyvelt has resigned…literally the day after he announced he had been hired.  Ouch.  In a statement, King said, “While they were his personal views, Mr. Verzwyvelt’s comments were, nonetheless not up to the standards of what I expect from my employees and in direct conflict with my own beliefs of tolerance, respect and decency.”

A few takeaways from this story:

  • Candidates should always check the social media of prospective campaign managers or high level staff.  Comments made by the staffers will be assumed to be endorsed by the candidate themselves, even if the comments long predated the date of hiring, as was the case here.  The issue was even more potent for King, as he had attacked his opponent, New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez, on women issues.
  • The tweets here were all old – from 2011-2012.  It was irrelevant.  Candidates and their staff will be held accountable for social media misbehavior, regardless of how recently the tweets were sent.
  • Don’t blame hacking.  You look ridiculous.  That’s what Anthony Weiner tried too.

Anything to add?  Let me know in the comments!

Missouri State Representative accidentally tweets picture of…well….

MarkParkinsonMark Parkinson (R-105) is a Missouri State Representative and the latest member of the “How did that tweet get published?” club.  Last week, Parkinson somehow tweeted a picture of a gigantic (parody) erection.  The tweet was deleted, but not before a reporter was able to take a screenshot.  In a series of tweets, Parkinson denied having sent the tweet in the first place and apologized for the error.

What’s even more interesting is that Parkinson’s account is mostly filled with FitBit updates…he doesn’t seem to use Twitter all that much otherwise.

I‘m not sure what really happened here – if Parkinson’s account was hacked or if the tweet was sent out some other way.  Regardless, I think Representative Parkinson handled the situation as best he could: he deleted the tweet, apologized for it, explained what he thought happened, and then answered multiple questions from others.  Clearly, he wasn’t trying to hide the error and he was more then willing to discuss what had happened.  In the event that this unfortunate situation happens to you, handling it as Parkinson did is a good model.

Arizona state schools superintendent gets busted as anonymous blog commenter

John Huppenthal is the Superintendent of Public Education for Arizona, a position he has held since his election in 2010.  It has come to light that Huppenthal has been the author of 100s of anonymous blog comments on the Blog for Arizona, a progressive blog that discusses Arizona comments.  As you can imagine, the comments that Huppenthal made were highly offensive.

Among Huppenthal’s comments:

  • On President Obama: “[he has been] rewarding the lazy pigs with food stamps (44 million people), air-conditioning, free health care, flat-screen TV’s (typical of ‘poor’ families)…
  • Said that the President admitted in his memoir that, “he was born in Kenya!!!”
  • On Germans as the Master Race: “It was Darwin, not Hitler, who named the Germans the master race. It was Darwin who expressed approval of eliminating both Jews and Africans.”
  • Compared Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger to Hitler and said that she “fed 16 million African-Americans into the abortion mills.”
  • Attacked, of all people, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying that his “disastrous economic policies drug down the whole world and directly led to the rise of a no-name hack named Adolph Hitler who was going nowhere until Germany’s economy went into the tank.”

In a statement Emailed to AZCentral, Huppenthal copped to the comments, and though he apologized for “allow[ing] the heat and and emotions of the moment to denigrate the value of civil discourse,” he largely defended his remarks.  He defended his anonymous comments by saying that, “Anonymity has its value as our founding fathers believed when they developed the Federal Papers.  It is not a new concept, our history reflects that.” That’s a new one…I can’t say I remember the last time an elected official attacked a President by accusing them of “rewarding  lazy pigs” and then defended himself via a comparison to our founding fathers.

As for some of the more offensive comments, Huppenthal said, “In Fairness, my blog entries have been taken completely out of context, our perhaps, misunderstood.” Actually, I don’t think that the comments were misunderstood at all, and that’s the problem.  The nature of the comments is very offensive and factually inaccurate.

Additionally, does anyone else think it’s interesting that the Superintendent of Public Education made multiple grammatical errors in his statement?

I’ve written before about elected officials who have done this, and the lesson remains the same: Don’t do this.  There is literally nothing to gain, and potentially everything to lose.  As an editorial by AZCentral stated, “The anonymous Internet is revealing. It shows us what a person really believes, what he holds deep in his heart. What he dares not say publicly.”

Using YouTube to connect with your constituents

As a State Representative, my top priority is education.  Most of my legislative district is in the Allentown School District, which has suffered tremendously over the past four years. Over 400 teachers have been cut, resulting in a 20% reduction in staff.  It’s been an exceptionally frustrating experience, and my biggest goal as a State Representative is to restore as much of that funding as possible.

As a result of my position, as well as my family connections (my Mom is a teacher in New Jersey and my wife teaches in Allentown), I’ve developed a strong connection with teachers.  In an effort to, at a bare minimum, show them just how appreciated they are, I made this brief video:

Much to my surprise, the video went “mini-viral” and was shared 39 times from my Facebook page; it currently has over 370 views.  Of course, this is a relatively small number, but still signifigantly higher than many other videos that I and other members have made.  More to the point, I am confident that the vast majority of people who watched this video are either my constituents or teachers.  This is exactly who I was trying to connet with.

Here’s my point: Elected officials should make videos like this as often as possible.  Videos can easily be geared towards a specific constituency (teachers, police officers, union members, small business owners, etc). Doing so can help create a custom message.  Use your social media to share the video and make sure to Email it to appropriate contacts so they can share it as well.  As I discovered, if you make a specific video like this, the people to whom the video is targetted will obviously appreciate it.  This increases the odds that the video will be liked, shared or commented on, which obviously extends its reach.

Far more importantly: Making videos like this is good public policy.  It allows your constituents to know what you are thinking and what you are fighting for (or against).  It’s not nearly enough, of course – me saying thank you to teachers is great and all, but if I can’t find a way to bring more money home and save additional jobs, the words I say won’t have nearly as much impact.  That being said, videos like this allow for elected officials to connect with specific segments of their community.  This, in turn, goes back to what I believe is the core function of social media when it comes to politics: bringing elected officials closer to their constituents, and increasing a constituent’s awareness of what their elected officials are fighting for.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Can these videos be improved upon?  Let me know in the comments!