"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend." —Thomas Jefferson

The other day, a friend of mine put her job and professional reputation at risk. Sadly, it wasn't for anything as significant as standing up for human rights or even bunny rights.

No, it was a Facebook post: a shared image that was intended to be a funny political meme but, instead, offended many of the people who saw it.

Should she have shared that post? Could she have lost her job? Might the issue have been avoided? Were people just being overly sensitive? Let's explore those questions—and others.

What do we mean by a 'political post'?

So that we're all on the same page, let's start with what I mean by "political post." To my mind, there are two kinds: implicit and explicit.

Implicit Political Post

Whenever you share something to Facebook or Twitter or other social network, you have the choice of sharing a simple link to an article of interest, or also adding your own commentary. That's an important distinction: If you're sharing an article that's a simple news event, it seems less politically motivated than if you add your opinion to the share about how feel about that news.

For instance, if you simply shared to your Facebook profile a news article back in 2014 about air strikes in Iraq, you'd be doing nothing more than sharing the news. But if you took it a step further and added your opinion about why the US president was right or wrong to take that action, then you'd be moving into the realm of political discourse.

Explicit Political Post

What's more obvious is when you share an article or image that in and of itself is expressly political. There are countless memes and videos that mock or assail one party or another. And on the wide spectrum of blogs and news sites, there are extreme left and extreme right sources that make no excuses for their deliberate bias.

During last year's presidential campaign, for instance, there was no shortage of memes mocking either Clinton or Trump (or both), shared countless times on various social networks.

Of course plain text posts in which you simply state your opinion on a political topic certainly count as explicitly political. (In fact, you may wish to replace "political" with "polarizing" or "controversial" from here on, as many of these points apply equally to posts about religion, sexuality, guns, and more.)

Should you share political posts?

The first question you should ask before sharing anything to social media, political posts in particular, is "Why?"

Why are you sharing this post? What do you hope to accomplish?

We sometimes think that our Facebook shares are so brilliant, insightful, and righteous that people of opposing opinions can't help but be swayed and won over by our argument.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sharing argumentative posts typically leads to more arguments (from the opposition), and foregone support from our likeminded friends.

What's worse is when we think we're being funny, as my friend did, and inadvertently offend more than a few of our connections. You then have to ask yourself whether that offense was worth the bit of humor.

But there's a more lasting problem with sharing political posts, and that has to do with how your friends and connections perceive you.

Every time you share something to social media, you're making an impression on the people who see it. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, the posts have such minimal impact on their impression of you that they hardly think about it.

But share something that rubs someone the wrong way, and they'll seriously begin to question their connection to you.

It's become commonplace for Facebook users to "purge" their friends list, ostensibly to clean up their feed, but the reality is that they're weeding out people whose posts they don't like. And though you may or may not care whether someone unfriends you on Facebook, that's not the worst that can happen...

What about the professional consequences?

Could you lose your job?

In a word, "Yes."

Many will argue that their right to free speech allows them to say whatever they wish on social media, but that's simply not true.

My colleague Andrea Vahl, in discussing how businesses can create social media policies for their employees, found this statement from an American Bar Association article:

American employees' free speech rights may be more accurately summarized by this paraphrase of a 1891 statement by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: "An employee may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be employed." In other words: to keep your job, you often can't say what you like.

The core of the issue isn't what you can or cannot say, or even where you say it; it's the potentially negative impact those comments might have on the company that employs you. The severity of that impact is relative to the prominence of your connection to the brand, and the ire that is generated as a result of your post.

In other words, if you're a relatively minor employee with no brand visibility who doesn't talk about your company, and it isn't stated on your profile that you represent your company, there's less likely to be an issue.

In the case of my friend, however, she often talks publicly about her company, she has her company information and title prominently displayed on her profile, and she is a prominent employee of the company. Inescapably, she is a representative of that brand; anything she says has the potential to reflect on that brand.

One observer of her controversial post commented to me privately, "What she said was inappropriate on so many different levels. It also affects how I now feel about a company that employs people who feel this way. Maybe it shouldn't, but it does."

Maybe it shouldn't, but it does.

There's nothing private about social media, particularly if you deliberately choose to share posts publicly. And brands that wish to escape the negative publicity that can haunt a post made with poor judgement often have little choice but to sever ties with the offender.

Could the issue have been avoided?

Various issues were at play in my example, not the least of which was the decision to share the meme in the first place.

Obviously, the entire mess could have been avoided had she shown better judgment and more restraint initially. Alternatively, because some elements of the post were in fact funny, had she eschewed the more offensive aspects and posted a different version, it might have raised far less offense.

Barring that, some of the issues might also been avoided if this person were not such an avid spokesperson for their brand. I and others who commented on the post and cautioned her to remove it did so because of that very point: We knew immediately that there was high potential for people to be offended, and additional potential for connections to be made to the brand she represents.

That's the kind of situation most brands prefer to avoid.

And, in fact, within moments, at least a couple of people reached out to her employer; eventually, she was asked to remove the post.

That does raise the issue of whether it's appropriate to contact someone's employer due to an offensive post. I think contacting someone's employer is the kind of action that needs to be reserved for only the most egregious of offenses. But that is certainly subjective, especially when people are hypersensitive about certain issues.

Are people being overly sensitive?

Such hypersensitivity can often lead to overreaction. Shares that were truly meant to be funny or enlighten are suddenly perverted into something else entirely.

Yet, we still have to go back to our very first question: Why do we feel we have to share something in the first place?

If it's truly benign but gets misinterpreted and misrepresented, that's hardly our fault. But should it come as a surprise?

In the ensuing discussion on my friend's post, people generally fell into three camps:

  1. Concerned: people like me who thought the post would cause issues for the poster and was just a bad idea
  2. Offended: people who were genuinely offended and upset by the post (and subsequent comments)
  3. Supportive: people who thought the post was funny, and thought everyone else was wrong for being offended.

One thing that I found interesting (and alarming) was the repeated argument from supporters that everyone else was too easily offended, had no sense of humor, and were bullying my friend to suppress her freedom of speech.

The problem here is that the people who thought the post was funny wanted to control the situation entirely. They sought to silence those who wanted to speak up and voice their concern about the post. In effect, the people who were being supportive to my friend were actually bullying and trying to suppress everyone else.

Those who commented and fell into the first two camps were expressing their opinions. They saw a post that someone they knew shared publicly on Facebook, and thought it was extremely distasteful, and told her so.

That's not being overly sensitive.

In fact, I told my friend that if it weren't for one word—just one word—the post would have gone from offensive to a funny political meme that happened to be making fun of a political figure. But the use of that single word in the meme turned it into an attack on a much larger group of people.

Had she taken the time to re-create the meme without that word, I would have chuckled inwardly at the irony of the post and kept scrolling through my feed. As would have most others.

The bottom line is this: Whether people are sensitive or overly sensitive, it doesn't matter. What matters is whether you choose to share something that has the potential to offend, and whether causing offense is worth it to you.

How can we talk about politics online, then?

Which elicits the question, How are we supposed to share anything if we're always to be afraid that someone might react or overreact?

Again, I'll make this point because it bears repeating: Give careful thought to anything you choose to share to social media. Is it worth it? Does this support your personal or professional brand? Or, as my friend Jay Baer puts it, "Give it the Mom test": If you'd be ashamed to have your mother read your post, best not to share it.

That said, there's certainly a time and place for political discussion, not to mention a way to do it that doesn't have so much potential for dangerous employment ramifications.

First, consider creating a List within Facebook (or Circle within Google+) where everyone within the List is someone with whom you know you can have political discussions and who would be interested in the kinds of posts you want to share—whether those posts are news, funny memes, or conspiracy theories. Choose the setting to share to this List instead of to Public, and the visibility of those posts will be restricted accordingly.

Second, look for Facebook Groups or Google+ Communities that are devoted to the topics and political leaning that you're attuned to.

Third, consider using more private, direct messaging like Skype, Facebook Messenger, and so on, so that your audience is restricted to the people you know are interested in that content.

And, finally, if you really want to have a political discussion on social media, do so with an open mind and genuinely curious perspective. Some of the best conversations I've had have been on Facebook and Google+, but never from the perspective that I was right and others were wrong.

Instead, seek to have a lively, open debate on the merits of policy, not the faults of an individual. Such conversations can go a long way toward creating moments of real understanding between you and others. Savor them, and avoid those dangerous memes!

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The Dangers of Being Too Political on Social Media

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image of Mike Allton

Mike Allton is an award-winning blogger and author at The Social Media Hat, as well as CMO at SiteSell.

Twitter: @Mike_Allton

Facebook: Mike Allton