Earlier this year, the Arizona office of the American Friends Service Committee had an interesting episode involving a Facebook exchange with the most powerful prosecutor in Arizona.
Our office works to reduce the size and scope of the criminal punishment system through sentencing reform, opposing the for-profit punishment and surveillance industry, and promoting community-based investments in prevention and non-institutional alternatives to incarceration.
This platform has, unsurprisingly, not gained us many fans among elected prosecutors in Arizona.
In July, our communications consultant, Joe Watson, wrote a blog about Neil Early, a young man who was murdered in a privately-operated prison while doing a five-year sentence for shoplifting.
Joe’s post was particularly meaningful because he had served time in the same prison with Neil and was able to add his personal reflections on who he was as a human being, underscoring the tragedy of what happened to him.
In the social media promotion of the blog, Joe tagged the county attorney who sent Neil to prison. The prosecutor responded immediately. This was unsurprising, as he has a long history of compulsively needing to personally refute all public discussions of the failures of the current system. For example, he once felt compelled to write an entire op-ed to respond to a paid advertisement that we had printed in the state’s legislative newspaper.
But the county attorney didn’t stop with one comment. He went as far as posting what was essentially Neil Early’s rap sheet as a Facebook comment. The post said that Neil had been offered probation and drug treatment, implying that Neil’s five-year sentence for shoplifting was warranted.
We had no intention of getting into an online argument with the district attorney of the largest county in Arizona. But we did want to use the exchange as a platform to re-frame the entire conversation around accountability, justice, and safety.
We recorded a short video of me responding to his question, using it as an illustration of the flawed logic that is at the heart of why our prison system is broken.
We organized the video response using the Value Problem Solution Action (VPSA) guidelines. The Value we share is that we want to reduce harm to people and communities. The Problem is that our current system consistently fails to do this. In fact, it exponentially creates more harm.
The Solution is to create a system designed to help people instead of control and punish them. To look for interventions that address the root causes of harm, and to restore people to wholeness instead of throwing them away.
And finally, the Action is to support AFSC-Arizona in our work to end mass punishment.
The district attorney’s response? He invited us to meet privately to talk about drug treatment and diversion.
Here’s what we learned from this experience. Two things:
- It pays to “tag.”
- Avoid “Twitter fights.”
Elected officials are extremely attentive to social media and tagging them in a post is more effective than you think it might be. However, while engaging with your opposition or decision-makers on social media has its advantages, it is important to resist the urge to get in a back-and-forth argument with them. After your initial tag, if they respond, think carefully about your next move. Don’t waste the opportunity by just having a public argument with them.
That’s why we chose to make a video addressing the points that the prosecutor made (rather than respond to him personally) and why we used the video to make a larger statement about the failings of the system as a whole.
Bottom line: Don’t feed the trolls.
Caroline Isaacs is Program Director of the American Friends Service Committee -- Arizona, and a 2015 Communications Institute Fellow.