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Government learns social media has a double edge

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) has become the latest government official to learn about the double-edged sword social media provides.

McHenry held a contentious hearing May 25 with Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor who helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010, and who may be nominated to head it. McHenry accused Warren of lying about past testimony and then, when Warren had to leave to meet other commitments, of lying about an agreement between McHenry's staff and her about the scheduled time for her testimony.

Almost immediately, McHenry's Facebook page began to fill up with posts denouncing his demeanor and conduct.

A sampling of the comments:

"Your disgraceful treatment of Ms. Warren is yet further validation of my decision to move away from North Carolina. You are a bully, sir, and politically so regressive as to be a fossil. I hope your mother is disappointed in you. You ought to know better."

"Just checking to see if you have apologized yet. We will stick around. As long as Ms. Warren sticking up for us we will continue to stick up for her. Kind of like as long as the big banks continue to give you money, you will continue to make sure they screw the rest of us. Well not quite the same, but you get the idea."

"I heard the conversation: You were rude, arrogant and peevishly childish. Our country needs people to work together to get us out of this rut. Your behavior shows you are not interested in that."

A few supportive comments were mixed in, but the critics dominated the page.

The Food and Drug Administration had a similar experience recently when it announced it was seeking an injunction against an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania for selling unpasteurized milk to a buyer's club in Maryland.

Such "raw milk" is legal in many states, but not in Maryland. Advocates argue that pasteurization destroys beneficial properties as well as pathogens, and that proper production techniques can keep it safe to drink. The FDA disagrees, but what really angered the agency's critics was the revelation that it had been targeting the farmer for more than a year, including infiltrating the buyer's club with undercover agents.

Sample comments:

"Raw Milk has sustained our civilization for centuries. Pasteurized milk has poisoned us for 50 years. GET OUT OF MY FOOD SUPPLY."

"Could you post where we CAN buy raw milk? Let me get this straight. Raw milk is bad and [genetically-modified foods] are good?"

"I find it funny how the FDA has determined that all the foods that the human race has been consuming since the dawn of history are now suddenly unhealthy for us. Really, it's a crime to sell or consume raw milk, the ONLY kind of milk people drank until about a century ago? Yet it's ok to eat chemically enhanced, processed, unnatural foods that are proven to make us sick. FDA=Hypocrisy."

After the flood of comments began, in early May, the FDA reset its page so that only FDA's own official posts would show by default. Visitors have to click a link labeled "most recent" to see the posts from others. In announcing the change on its page, FDA wrote: "We have changed the default view of our fan page to make it easier for people to find FDA information. Thanks for all your feedback!"

We'd like to hope that McHenry, FDA's leaders and other government officials who may be besieged by such Facebook feedback in the future take it to heart. The social network and government's use of it is giving the public an unprecedented opportunity to communicate directly to government officials. A government truly interested in listening to its constituents now has a direct way to do that.

Posted on May 26, 2011 at 12:18 PM


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