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Sarah Palin Shows How Social Media's Long Memory Can Trip You

In the wake of the Arizona shootings, the usual suspects quickly lined up to point fingers at one another. Those on the left blamed rhetoric of the Tea Party or Sarah Palin, especially the latter's use of symbols that easily can be interpreted as rifle targets. People on the right said that the shooter was deranged and that political talk had nothing to do with the event, and complained that some on the left are also given to inflammatory speech.

Weirdly enough, there's an important business lesson here. Sarah Palin's reaction -- particularly the attempts of her people to distance her from the shooting controversy and to claim that a notorious graphic she used bore surveyor's marks and not rifle sights to "target" Democratic legislators -- offers the important reminder that while it can be easy to start a social media campaign, it's often far harder to control it afterward.

For example, the people who run the Web site for Palin's political-action committee, titled Take Back the 20, removed the controversial target map after the shooting. (You can see that the map was AWOL on Jan. 8 in this cached Google page; as of writing, the entire site is currently down.) However, content management systems that allow an organization to control its website don't extend to third party social media outlets, and the map remained in a note on Palin's Facebook page:

In addition, whoever monitors comments on Palin's Facebook page must have worked overtime to remove negative comments as quickly as possible, often within a couple of minutes according to the Obama London blog, which documented comments and their removal over a period of time. The same worker bees pulled down similarly "supportive" comments as well, such as one that read, "To [sic] bad it wasn't Pelosi."

However, in the process, they left one questionable comment up for an extended period of time:

It's ok. Christina Taylor Green was probably going to end up a left wing bleeding heart liberal anyway. Hey, as 'they' say, what would you do if you had the chance to kill Hitler as a kid? Exactly.
More than distasteful. (Green is the nine-year-old girl who was shot and killed in the Arizona gunman's rampage.) Was it left remaining on purpose? Did Palin's people simply miss it in the rush? It doesn't matter, because now Palin is associated with it. (Not that whatever the real story might be will convince partisans on either side to change their minds.)

That underscores a social media problem for businesses. Such outlets as Facebook, Twitter, and the automatic archives of Web sites that the Internet Archive and Google (GOOG) make aren't easily managed once your message gets out of hand. Even as a Sarah Palin aide said that the target marks were surveyor marks, not rifle crosshairs, Mediaite noted that a Palin tweet contradicted the claim:

Palin employs a group of people that, at times, have appeared obsessive about protecting her name and image, and even they can miss these bits of unintended documented history and self-contradiction. That's just for one public figure. Any guess as to how much more trouble a company -- which by definition has an incredibly complex web of personalities and communications channels --- could find itself in during a crisis? Members of the public often have short memories, but not the Internet.

Executives need to understand that social media isn't a trivial plaything to be used on a whim. They need strategy as well as tactics, and the tools and sophisticated business processes to control them.