A post on Okaloosa County Commissioner Wayne Harris’ Facebook page has drawn considerable attention.
The post, from Thursday, criticizes a federal health care mandate forcing Christian organizations except churches to provide contraception coverage. The solution is voting for politicians favoring Christian religions, not Islam, according to the text, which says: “Have you ever seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life?”
We shared the post on our Facebook page. Readers divided in familiar camps: those who believed we were manufacturing controversy, and those who understood the merits of sharing it. The latter group noted that our comment on the post stated facts, offered no judgments, and asked readers to weigh in with their views.
Some readers said they know what’s in the commissioner’s heart, but that’s the concern. We can rely only on facts — in this case, content that featured voter direction and anti-Muslim sentiments.
We can cut the commissioner some slack because the comment was not original. Most of the text came from a 2012 chain email during Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. However, public officials in the age of social media should proofread their submissions before sending them to a mass audience.
The quoted post lacks attribution, so any constituent reading the commissioner’s publicly accessible page — particularly those less Internet-literate, who don't understand that entering a couple of times after a prelude to the post suggests the following text was taken from another source — could believe Harris himself penned the appeal. Additionally, no part of the post says, “I disavow this part” or “I support this part,” which might have relieved Muslim Okaloosans.
Our sharing the post with readers wasn’t intended to judge the commissioner or make implications — none that his endorsing the post, with minimal notations or delineations, already made.
Many people may think this is a non-issue, as Facebook is an informal communication tool.
Is it, though? A public official, even on a personal page, could break Florida’s broad Public Records Law with the slightest hint of a conversation with another public official on municipal matters. Since that potential exists, shouldn’t elected leaders exhibit the same gravitas as when they’re on the campaign trail?
Politicians’ social media posts, likes and shares may seem like quick transmissions of funny or clever messages for their party-line proponents, but they mean much more to constituents who see these messages as insight to beliefs on policy.
When you’re a public official, it doesn’t matter if it’s a personal page; if it’s in black and white, it’s gospel to constituents. It’s no hindrance, but rather a credit, that you and your posts are held to higher standards.
Since Facebook posts are premeditated and have a beginning, middle and end, they can be taken at face value. And we must hold public officials accountable for their content.
Readers, particularly those bemoaning our efforts to keep public officials accountable, shouldn’t expect — and will never receive — less than that.