To prevent uncivil debates from breaking out on its Facebook Page wall in the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., the National Rifle Association has unpublished its Facebook Page, presumably temporarily. Update: I’m waiting for official confirmation from NRA that it hid its Page. However, Facebook didn’t take it down it tells me, indicating the NRA did so voluntarily.
The non-profit group that advocates to protect the right to bear arms in the United States has encountered intense backlash on social media since the mass shooting in Connecticut on Friday morning. Following the shooting in Aurora, Colo., in July the NRA got into trouble for an insensitive tweet. It’s taking a more aggressive approach to handling its social accounts now.
The NRA’s Facebook Page became unavailable to the public and began redirecting to the Facebook home page on Friday evening, roughly 10 hours after the shootings. The NRA’s Twitter account has not tweeted since the tragedy, but it remains visible.
Twitter only provides account holders with a more drastic “deactivation” option that deletes the Page entirely 30 days later. Since the NRA couldn’t prevent people from searching for tweets about it, and Twitter profiles aren’t set up as forums between other users, it’s understandable that the rifle association would leave the account merely silent.
So why would the NRA take down its Facebook Page? Because pro- and anti-gun citizens likely would have gone to war on its wall. In crisis situations, fans of Facebook Pages often come to the defense of their causes by arguing with those leaving angry remarks. Discussions could have taken an ugly turn, with those on either side leaving inappropriate posts and comments.
Those could have reflected poorly on the NRA, or forced it to prematurely make a statement about the shooting. It would have presented a nearly impossible moderation challenge, where the NRA would have had to tip-toe a very fine line between censorship and keeping the wall clean. Deleting or leaving up certain posts could have sparked even greater criticism.
So instead, it seems to have used Facebook’s Page Visibility setting to unpublish the Page and make it visible only to admins. That means no one can visit the page, write on its wall, or tag it in posts. This is different than deleting the Page. The NRA can unhide its Page when it chooses to, and pick up where it left off with no Likes lost.
For now the URL www.facebook.com/NationalRifleAssociation redirects to the Facebook homepage. Several unofficial and uncontrolled community Pages for the NRA that port in content from Wikipedia remain up. We’re awaiting a comment from the NRA on whether it can officially confirm that it took down the Page, but since Facebook didn’t, it’s safe to say the NRA did.
Unpublishing goes a step further than shutting off the ability for people to post on the Page’s wall, which still allows it to be tagged, see how friends have interacted with the Page, and importantly, comment on old posts by the Page. That means the same flame wars could have erupted in the comments of previous NRA posts, such as the image it published Thursday celebrating the milestone of 1.7 million Likes. Unpublishing was the only way to totally avoid becoming a canvas for controversial debate at this sensitive time.
Unfortunately, hiding the Page also eliminated a venue for a rational discussion about gun control to take place. But let’s face it. This is the Internet, and public forums during emotional times are not necessarily the most productive way to review a serious issue.
Some have accused the organization of cowardice for taking down the Page and ceasing to tweet. However, this crisis-management strategy may be succeeding. It’s prevented creating a centralized place under the NRA banner where perspectives of its independent supporters could have been taken as its own. The last thing the NRA wants is to be characterized as sharing an extremist or offensive position posted by someone who doesn’t speak for it or the rest of its fans. Other brands and organizations might follow the NRA’s lead by retreating from social media when they face times of crisis.
The hearts of the TechCrunch team go out to the families grieving for those lost in this tragedy, and this post is not meant to take a stance on related issues.