Social Media and the “Double-Edged” Sword of Damocles: Survival Rests on Humility, Self-Control, and the Principles of Public Relations

Social Media and the “Double-Edged” Sword of Damocles:

Survival Rests on Humility, Self-Control, and the Principles of Public Relations

Dear Colleagues,


   Social Media is a fickle bitch.

   Right there, I may have lost you. . . but made my point.

   You see. . . if I offended you by swearing in print. . . or by assuming that social media is “female,” and my comment resurrected all sorts of angst regarding either your mother (and the first time you uttered a swearword), or gender biases and stereotypes. . .

    And you have now (a) stopped reading this Blog, and (b) scrolled to the bottom. . . ready to “rip off” a punishing comment or two. . .

   Then, I have made my point.

   My broader, and real point is that Social Media has both benefits, and the potential for significant, life-long losses. . . losses that might involve the Supreme Court, jeopardize a career, or permanently scar an adolescent’s life (or worse).

   We all need Social Media training.

   And to expand my points in a recent Blog,

What Super Bowl Commercials Teach Education About Media and Product Literacy


this training needs to start with Media Psychology and Media Literacy, and include Public Relations.

Social Media and the Double-Edged Sword of Damocles

   Social Media, as in the title above, is the new “Double-Edged” Sword of Damocles for many people. recounts the story in this way:

The famed “sword of Damocles” dates back to an ancient moral parable popularized by the Roman philosopher Cicero in his 45 B.C. book “Tusculan Disputations.” Cicero’s version of the tale centers on Dionysius II, a tyrannical king who once ruled over the Sicilian city of Syracuse during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.

Though rich and powerful, Dionysius was supremely unhappy. His iron-fisted rule had made him many enemies, and he was tormented by fears of assassination— so much so that he slept in a bedchamber surrounded by a moat and only trusted his daughters to shave his beard with a razor.

As Cicero tells it, the king’s dissatisfaction came to a head one day after a court flatterer named Damocles showered him with compliments and remarked how blissful his life must be. “Since this life delights you,” an annoyed Dionysius replied, “do you wish to taste it yourself and make a trial of my good fortune?” When Damocles agreed, Dionysius seated him on a golden couch and ordered a host of servants to wait on him. He was treated to succulent cuts of meat and lavished with scented perfumes and ointments.

Damocles couldn’t believe his luck, but just as he was starting to enjoy the life of a king, he noticed that Dionysius had also hung a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling. It was positioned over Damocles’ head, suspended only by a single strand of horsehair. From then on, the courtier’s fear for his life made it impossible for him to savor the opulence of the feast or enjoy the servants. After casting several nervous glances at the blade dangling above him, he asked to be excused, saying he no longer wished to be so fortunate.

For Cicero, the tale of Dionysius and Damocles represented the idea that those in power always labor under the specter of anxiety and death, and that “there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions.”

The parable later became a common motif in medieval literature, and the phrase “sword of Damocles” is now commonly used as a catchall term to describe a looming danger. Likewise, the saying “hanging by a thread” has become shorthand for a fraught or precarious situation.

One of its more famous uses came in 1961 during the Cold War, when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech before the United Nations in which he said that “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”

   While we could discuss how Kennedy’s fear is even more present today, the point of today’s Blog—once again—is that Social Media’s power to enhance or destroy hangs above each of us who use it.

   The power is “double-edged,” and. . . to a large extent. . . we hold the “keys” to the power.

Social Media I: Think Before You Act, and then, Think Again

   Over the past month, a colleague of mine has experienced a self-inflicted international (yes, I said “international”) public relations catastrophe.

   It began when she complained to the leadership of a large national service-provider about a few employees who were “breaking” minor, innocuous rules that had no personal effect on her or any other customers. . . all to receive compensation for either her “attentiveness” or her “inconvenience.”

   The problem is that she then went onto Social Media to publicize her actions and to gloat about receiving “compensation” that turned out to be “pennies on the dollar.”

   And how did I find out about this situation?

   I never saw her original Social Media post. Instead, I saw a post of hers on another Social Media channel where she (a) said she was going through a “hard time,” (b) asked for people’s prayers, and (c) said it did not matter what the “hard time” was about.

   So what did I do?. . . as, naturally, inquiring minds “want to know”. . .

   I googled her name, and up popped multiple stories—with professional pictures of her—describing the “social media offense” she had reported. . . as noted above.

   Since then, my colleague has become an international villain on the trade websites and in the related blogs, Facebook, and other social media platforms of the industry-employees that she “turned in”. . .

. . . and she has been vilified for the pettiness of her complaint to “corporate,” and ripped apart for gloating about the “personal phone call” that she received from “corporate” when awarded “her compensation.”

   “But, there’s more” (as Marisa Tomei exclaimed from the witness stand in My Cousin Vinny). . .

   Employees from the company that my colleague complained to. . . from across the country. . . and those who were just appalled at what she did. . . from across the world. . . decided to take action.

  (It seems the professional she complained about may have lost his job.)

   They went into my colleague’s Amazon store and trashed her reputation, products, and customer service ratings. . . resulting in Amazon closing the store for a period of time.

   They went onto my colleague’s Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms. . . and did the same thing. . . resulting in her closing those accounts, and changing her name so that she could “safely’ reopen them.

   And one person even created a real website using my colleague’s name in the URL to catalog the “original sin,” and the international media blitz that continues to this day.

   And my colleague. . . responded to the posts by “doubling down” and defending her original complaint to “Corporate,” and then threatening those negatively posting about her with FBI surveillance and possible legal action.

_ _ _ _ _

   I could not make this up if I tried.

   Here are the first social media take-aways. . . take aways that we all need to learn from, that we need to teach our children, and that we—who are educators—need to make sure are part of the media literacy training in our schools:

   Relative to Social Media posts:

  • Take-Away #1. Think before you post, and then Think again.
  • Take-Away #2. Once you have posted virtually, you virtually have no control over your post’s interpretation or how others’ respond.
  • Take-Away #3. You can’t win a virtual argument; you can only force it underground. . . and it surely will resurface—but not the way you want.
  • Take-Away #4. Nothing is private any more. You can ask for privacy, but if someone wants to know “Why?”, there are 5 million Google hits that will inform them.
  • Take-Away #5. One social media mistake could affect you for the rest of your life.

Social Media II: Let Your Ego do the Walking, and Your Humility do the Talking

   Unfortunately, my colleague broke any number of “rules” of public relations (and common sense) in handling this catastrophe (never mind the original social media mis-step).

   Instead of being humble, and publicly admitting her mistake in a gracious and heart-felt way, she took the “Trumpian” approach of doubling down and meeting “fire with fire.”

   Critically, she had nothing to lose by letting her ego “stand down,” and everything to lose (which, in essence, she has) by seeing herself as “the victim,” and letting her blind stubbornness “stand firm.”

_ _ _ _ _

   Beyond my colleague, school districts and their leaders are constantly in “the public eye.”

   Whether it is at a School Board meeting, posting on a school or district Facebook page, responding to a single parent’s e-mail (that is then shared with parents across the school or community), educators are public agents, and they must recognize their unwitting “public relations” position—for good or for bad.

   According to the Salient Public Relations firm, when facing a public relations catastrophe, the following key steps (edited) should be considered before a public response:

  • Understand Your PR Failures: To prevent damage to your reputation and/or your organization’s public standing or perception, it is crucial to understand the causes and consequences of your public relations failure.

Some common causes include (a) inadequate or inappropriate communications; (b) making policy or procedure decisions or actions without having all of the facts or conferring with your constituencies; (c) mismanaging political, social, or cultural language or contexts; and (d) demonstrating high levels of inconsistency, favoritism, inequity, or bias.

_ _ _ _ _

  • Crisis Management Plan: Convene a trusted and expert team (including outside consultants and/or legal counsel, if needed) as soon as possible, and create a crisis management plan.

This plan should outline how to respond swiftly and effectively when a crisis occurs. It includes assessing the situation, preparing stakeholders, creating a response team, and drafting a press release.

_ _ _ _ _

  • Clear Communication: Prioritize clear communication with stakeholders, your different publics, and/or the individual(s) who were harmed. Transparency is essential during a crisis.

Keep customers/constituents, employees/staff, investors/Board of Directors, and the public informed about the situation and any corrective actions being taken.

_ _ _ _ _

  • Sincere Apologies: If necessary, issue prompt and genuine apologies. Acknowledge mistakes, take responsibility, and express remorse. A sincere apology can go a long way in rebuilding trust.

_ _ _ _ _

  • Corrective Actions: Implement corrective actions to address the root cause of the crisis. Learn from the situation and use it as a learning opportunity. Show determination to right the wrongs.

_ _ _ _ _

   Remember, prevention is key. Avoid over-promising and always strive to over-deliver. Be authentic, and given people opportunities to respect you and the organization that you represent.

   Additionally, never ignore a crisis, as that communicates indifference or disrespect. Instead, focus on correcting the situation and demonstrating empathy. Give the process time, and don’t over-communicate or get in your own way.

   Forgiveness, and the process of recuperating from a public relation catastrophe takes time, patience, and trust—in yourself and others. Time is a healing necessity. If you go too fast, the healing will not last.

Social Media IIIIntent Can be Misinterpreted, and Needs to be Carefully Clarified

   Personal (and professional) Story. . .

   I always share my Blogs across a variety of social media channels.

   Invariably. . . because “a picture is worth a thousand words”. . . I handpick a picture that (a) provocatively reflects the essence of the Blog, (b) immediately (I hope) attracts people to the post, and (c) helps give a lasting impression and memory to what people have read.

   A number of Blogs ago, I discussed how “Too many schools are teaching students to control their emotions the wrong way.”

   For that post, I chose a picture of an angry fifth-grade African-American sitting at her classroom desk girl with her fists clenched. . . glaring at the camera.

   I chose the picture consciously. . . after a great deal of thought and internal debate. . . weighing the potential stereotype of depicting an angry Black schoolgirl against using a “more neutral and safer picture.”

   Obviously, the picture I used won out.

   The response to the Blog. . . the words on the “paper”. . . were overwhelmingly positive. . . and the Blog was a “best seller.”

   But, I receive one scathing comment. . . that accused me of proliferating racial biases and made a number of unflattering statements. The comment ended with the individual posting a picture that s/he thought was more appropriate and “less offensive.”

   The comment could have gone viral. . . the Blog’s message could have been “lost in space”. . . and I knew I needed to respond. . . carefully and respectfully.

   I considered and took many of the actions outlined in the section immediately above. . . to avoid a public relations catastrophe.

   And, I posted the following response:

Dear Colleague,

I appreciate your comment. Know that my intent is never to offend, and I apologize if that was your reaction.

While your photo is great, those of us who post frequently usually take great care before posting their story-related pictures.

Indeed, if you follow my work, you know that I use many group shots of diverse students, and rotate the race and gender of my single-student photos.

In this case, I consciously chose this picture.... very carefully weighing the positives and negatives. I went ahead with this selection, actually, because of the reality that some DO stereotype Black schoolgirls. . . in many negative ways.

I wanted these people, especially those with implicit biases, to read the article to help them understand that lack of emotional control is not about gender or race, but the contexts of the emotionality, the lack of scientific emotional control instruction, and the reality that many educators (and others) don't necessarily understand the complexities of children's emotions and behaviors.

I hope you understand this explanation, even though you may disagree.




   Sometimes it just seems that social media is just a “new toy” that we all need to “figure out.”

   But I keep trying to identify a similar innovation from the past that has the both the enormous upsides and devastating downsides of social media. . . all as fueled by the internet.

   I can’t come up with one.

   On the upside. . . social media is a way of connecting, communicating, learning, marketing, and teaching.

   On the downside. . . social media is responsible for some child and adolescent depression and other mental health issues, it has become (for some) an obsessive waste of time and an agent of distraction and procrastination, and it has created a generation of wanna-be “influencers” who live in a fantasy world of “likes” and “hits.”

   For those who believe that they are “in control” of their social media interactions, you only need to recognize that algorithms control what you see on social media, and that companies control the algorithms.

   To finish this Blog, I asked Microsoft Copilot, my computer’s AI-powered search assistant, “Who controls the algorithms on social media?” [I hope you get the irony here.]

   The response was the following:

Social media algorithms are primarily controlled by the platforms themselves, but let’s dive deeper into this:

Platform Companies (like) Google and Facebook wield significant power over the information ecosystem. Their algorithms shape what content users see and interact with on their platforms.

These companies design and maintain the algorithms that determine the order of posts, recommendations, and personalized content.

_ _ _ _ _

Algorithm Development:

  • Coders and Engineers: Algorithms are created by teams of coders and engineers within these platform companies. They use machine learning techniques to develop and fine-tune the algorithms. This allows them to learn from user interactions and adapt over time.
  • Ranking Signals: Algorithms consider various ranking signals to prioritize content:
  • User Engagement: Likes, comments, shares, and clicks influence content visibility.
  • Relevance: Algorithms analyze the content’s relevance to individual users based on their past interactions.
  • Timeliness: Fresh content often gets priority.
  • Personalization: Algorithms tailor content to each user’s preferences.

_ _ _ _ _

  • Content Moderation Policies: Algorithms also enforce content moderation policies set by the platform companies. These policies dictate what content is allowed, flagged, or removed. Content moderation decisions can significantly impact users’ experiences.

In summary, social media algorithms are a blend of technology, data, and policy decisions. While the platforms control the algorithms, their impact extends to every user, shaping what appears in our feeds and influencing our online interactions.

_ _ _ _ _

   So let’s go full-circle.

   In order to control the algorithms that control social media that control users, users need to use self-control.

   And that means, to put this in Freudian terms, that our Super-Egos need to control our Ids in order to preserve our Egos.

   My colleague. . . with the public relations catastrophe. . . let her Id get in the way.

   She wanted to “show off” her “power” in being able to complain about a few service company employees who were “breaking” minor, innocuous rules that had no personal effect on her or any other customers.

   She triggered her “problem” by publicizing her actions and her receipt of a piddling amount of compensation for these actions.

   Her social media post resulted in a tumultuous negative international deluge of other people’s Ids. . . which has impacted my colleague both professionally and emotionally (the recent posts in her new-named social media accounts suggest she is traumatized).

   And yet, her Id doubled-down. . . as it continues to “win” over her Super-Ego and common sense.

   Once again:

   In order to control the algorithms that control social media that control users, users need to use self-control.

   For my educator-colleagues:

   We need to (continue to) teach these lessons to our children and adolescents as often as possible in effective, developmentally-sensitive ways.

_ _ _ _ _

   This Blog has discussed Social Media as the new “Sword of Damocles”  that hangs above us with the power to enhance or destroy each of us who uses it. We assert that the power of Social Media is “double-edged,” and. . . to a large extent. . . that our self-control, humility, common sense, and ability to honestly self-reflective are the “keys” to the power.

   The Blog tells the tale of a colleague who recently mis-used social media to complain to “Corporate” about a few service company employees who were “breaking” minor, innocuous rules that had no personal effect on her or any other customers.

   She triggered a social media catastrophe by publicizing her actions, including the piddling amount of compensation she received for her complaints. This triggered an international backlash debilitating her professional sales and reputation, and her personal and “social media” life.

   The Blog uses this cautionary tale to discuss how to self-control Social Media, and five social media take-aways that we all need to learn and to teach our children. We share what Public Relations firms suggest to moderate a public relations catastrophe. And, we give a personal example of how to respond when negative comments are posted on a social media post.

   The social media Sword of Damocles has fallen on far too many users. 

_ _ _ _

   We hope that this Blog has been both relevant and helpful to you. . . personally and professionally.

   As we enter the “last phase” of the school year, we remind you that:

“The Beginning of the Next School Year begins in April” (that is, NOW).

   Right now is the best time to analyze and summarize the student, staff, and school “lessons” you have learned during this past year, and apply them to a successful beginning of the next school year.

   We have a systematic process that has helped thousands of schools to organize themselves for the most successful “first day of school” that they ever have experienced.

   If you would like to learn more, e-mail or call me to set up a free one-hour team discussion of what this might look like in your school or district.

   Meanwhile. . . thanks for reading my Blog.