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Aug 15 / King Kaufman

Nate Silver’s misstep is a reminder to think first, and second, before tweeting

Here’s another one of those reminders that in breaking-news situations, it’s wise to think twice, and then think again, before you weigh in on social media.

As street protests and a militarized police presence continued for the fifth horrific day in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday, founder Nate Silver tweeted a little story about an encounter he had with the police “a couple years ago.” He described being arrested and held briefly when he declined to leave the scene of an arrest he’d stopped to watch.

The eight-tweet story concluded with Silver apologizing to the cops, having his takeout burrito returned to him, and being given a ride home.

Gawker’s Michelle Dean wrote about the story. Here’s the headline: Nate Silver, Inspired by Ferguson, Tells Idiotic Arrest Story.

Disclosure: I’ve never met Nate Silver, but we know each other virtually. We’ve exchanged emails and possibly a phone call or two over the years, mostly because we played in the same fantasy baseball league in the ’00s. I can’t say I know Nate well at all, but I’ve interacted with him some and we have quite a few friends in common. My impression is that he’s a pretty good guy.

I don’t know what he was trying to do with those tweets, but I’d be willing to bet he wasn’t trying to equate his “suffering”—an hour of inconvenience and worry, plus having to eat a cold burrito—with that of the people of Ferguson. If I had to guess I’d bet he was trying to make a point about overzealous police, or how intimidating it can be to be ordered around. Or something.

But the thing is, I’d have to guess. For a while, I was waiting for a ninth tweet, one that acknowledged that, however scary that experience was, it was nothing compared to what the people of Ferguson were going through, or that his white skin gave him the option of clearing everything up with an apology. Or something. (Update: Something like the latter is what Silver said in a longer apology he later gave to New York Magazine.)

But the feed fell silent, leaving people to wonder what the heck Silver was thinking, with many, including Gawker, assuming the worst.

Silver apologized in a trio of tweets Thursday morning, saying he’d have more to say later:

Is it always a bad idea to comment about breaking news? Of course not. Is it always a bad idea to comment about racial issues, which are at the forefront of the Ferguson story? Of course not. Is it always a bad idea to comment about a situation where people have been killed or injured? Of course not.

But these are all situations that require an extra moment of thought, and then another and another. When things are moving fast, or when sensitive subjects are involved, you have to think through the implications of what you’re going to say.

Could what you’re about to say reasonably be taken the wrong way? Could it damage your credibility in some way? And is it worth the risk? Are you adding something to the conversation or just popping off?

You can delete a tweet—which, to Silver’s credit, he did not do in this case—but you can’t make it go away completely. You can count on someone capturing a screenshot of it.

You can’t anticipate every reaction to everything you might possibly say, and we all step in it sometimes, even a guy as smart as Nate Silver. But thinking, and thinking hard, about what you say around potentially controversial subjects is always a good idea.

See also:

Social media guidelines: A reminder to think first and be civil

Twitter civility: Remember who and what you represent in social media