Kansas teen-Gov. Brownback Twitter controversy sparks reaction on social media

11/25/2011 12:31 PM

09/24/2013 9:21 AM

Call it the tweet heard ’round the world – or at least across political and social media circles.

Kansas teenager Emma Sullivan spent much of the past two days fielding media requests, phone calls, e-mails and Twitter comments after her disparaging tweet about Gov. Sam Brownback – and her principal’s insistence that she apologize – drew national attention.

Sullivan, a senior at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, was in Topeka on Monday as part of a Kansas Youth in Government program when she posted an insult about Brownback on her personal Twitter page.

Someone in Brownback’s office flagged the tweet and reported it to event organizers. The next day, Sullivan’s principal ordered her to apologize in writing.

After an Eagle story about the dispute appeared on the Drudge Report, a popular online news aggregator, and other media outlets Thursday, Sullivan started hearing from people around the country.

“I knew it would cause some uproar, but I definitely didn’t think it would get to a national level or that I would have so many people tweeting at me,” Sullivan said Friday.

“I’m really glad most people have been supportive of me, regardless of their political views,” she said. “They’re standing up for the fact that it’s my right to express myself.”

Not surprisingly, much of the support came via Twitter, where Sullivan’s original hashtag – #heblowsalot – was adopted and reposted hundreds of times by Brownback critics. Some pledged to create posters and T-shirts with the slogan.

“If I would have known this would happen, I might have worded it a bit differently,” Sullivan joked.

Many urged the 18-year-old not to pen an apology letter at all, suggesting instead that the governor or his representatives apologize to Sullivan for reporting her to school officials.

“Stand your ground, kid!” tweeted Catherine Thatch. “You’ve got a ton of people in your corner.”

“Ich bin ein Emma Sullivan!” added Tim Hicks.

By Friday, a blurb about the controversy had been added to Brownback’s Wikipedia page. Links to tweets were posted on the MetaFilter web log. And Sullivan’s Twitter account, @emmakate988, had more than 1,400 followers. (When she tweeted the anti-Brownback comment Monday, she had 61.) In her original tweet, Sullivan said she told Brownback that he sucked, even though she didn’t speak to the governor.

Some social media experts, political strategists and bloggers pointed to the saga as an example of Internet monitoring gone bad.

“People talking about you on social media is inevitable, and the young woman has an absolute right to do that,” said David Kamerer, who teaches public relations and new media at Loyola University in Chicago. “And Brownback has an absolute right to monitor what people are saying about him.

“But I would say it was a mistake to call her out, and that it would be long forgotten had he not done that.”

Brownback’s office did not return calls or e-mails Friday. Neither did some of the state’s ranking Democrats, who have been noticeably quiet during the social media firestorm.

“There is a truism in politics that when your opponent is falling down, you don’t get in his way,” said Jason Stanford, a Democratic strategist and political consultant in Austin, Texas.

Stanford said he planned to use the episode as a lesson on how to handle social media and what to say – or more importantly, what not to say – to constituents who may post offensive comments.

“One thing I tell my clients is to never read the comments on websites and blogs,” he said. “I’ve frequently had to calm them down and say, ‘It’s just one person. We can’t overreact.’

“If you’re that sensitive to criticism, maybe politics isn’t the right business for you.”

Stanford and others also questioned the governor’s use of staff time and resources to report the teen’s tweet.

“It’s a misuse of government property and time to intimidate an 18-year-old girl,” he said. “But the appropriate penalty here should be public embarrassment.”

Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said Wednesday that Brownback’s staff conducts regular Web searches for his name “so we can see what Kansans are thinking and saying about the governor and his policies.”

She said reporting Sullivan’s tweet to organizers of the Youth in Government event was “the first time we’ve had a situation like this come about.”

On Friday, Sullivan said she was “leaning toward not writing the letters” of apology that her principal wants her to turn in Monday.

“The part I’m most nervous about is going back to school and facing him,” she said. “After learning more and kind of talking to people about it and seeing how much support I have, that definitely helps.”

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