The National Rifle Association is dealing with the double-edge sword of social media by taking down its Facebook page and going silent on Twitter in the wake of the tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The NRA, a lobbying group that advocates for gun owner rights, has been taking a flood of hits on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks since 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday.
The alleged gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, reportedly carried several guns, including a .223 caliber Bushmaster rifle, and two handguns, into the school.
He is alleged to have shot and killed his mother at her home before going to the school.
Shortly after details of the massacre hit the news, online discussions of tightening U.S. gun control laws spread. The NRA has long opposed such proposals.
Facebook and Twitter were both flooded with posts about the incident. Many were angry and aimed squarely at the NRA.
On the other hand, the NRA went silent, taking down its Facebook page and halting all Twitter activity.
The NRA could not be reached online and several phone calls went unanswered.
Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis, said there's probably no tweet or post that the NRA could put up right now that would help it counter the negative posts.
"They've taken such a public stance on people's right to bear arms so it's a little odd that they've gone silent. But what are they going to say?" he said. "This is really such a sensitive situation."
"If they came out right now and said they're sorry this happened, the immediate response would be people asking if that means they're accepting responsibility," Shimmin said.
Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said this is a learning experience for all companies and organizations that use social media.
Olds noted that while social networks can boost a company's image and popularity, public opinion can turn quickly when things go bad.
"Organizations and even high-profile individuals are just now starting to understand how to deal with the social networking fallout from bad PR situations," he said.
"In the wake of the Newtown shootings, I think the NRA probably made the right move by going dark on social networks. They don't have any good options right now. It's just too soon. So going silent and becoming invisible is probably the best choice from a very limited set of options," Olds added.
Olds said it's probably best that the lobbying group stay dark for a while.
"Anything they say right now will be pounced upon and used against them," Olds added. "It's hard to say how long they should keep quiet. I think it'll probably be at least a week or two. And when they come back, that will be the time for them to express their sympathy for the people of Newtown. That should be their first order of business."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.