On Twitter, all it takes to embarrass oneself is one click of the mouse or tap on a smartphone—combined with a lack of thoroughness and a dose of haste.
It's a lesson Spike Lee learned (or relearned) after he retweeted what he believed to be the home address of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. The address Lee retweeted instead belonged to an elderly couple with no connection to Martin's killer. Lee's 252,000 Twitter followers took that information and ran with it, and the couple received so much hate mail and threats that they temporarily moved into a hotel, according to Fox News and CNN.
On March 28, Lee issued an apology on Twitter to the couple for recklessly retweeting their address (the original tweet has been deleted). Lee wrote, “I deeply apologize to the McClain Family for retweeting their address. It was a mistake. Please leave the McClains in peace. Justice in Court.”
The communications best practice here is to assume that you fully endorse the content of a retweet and to treat it as if it originated with you, unless the content of the retweet is clearly contextualized. While retweeting can be a great way to participate in a community, share others' ideas and avoid being overly self-promotional on Twitter, retweeting without carefully considering what is being passed on, whether it's a linked article or a statement, can severely damage and embarrass both brands and individuals. To paraphrase the shopkeeper's (and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's) warning: If you retweet it, you own it.
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