Whether an elected official is school board member in a small town or a U.S. Senator representing an entire state, constructive dialogue enables those leaders to engage the people they serve.
Communication between the electorate and their government representatives has increased dramatically during the last decade, and social media has played a significant role in that expansion. From Silicon Valley to rural Arkansas, policymakers are struggling to keep up with and make use of these technological advances. However, the social media platforms we have today usually do not create the kind of productive discourse useful for accurate representation and good government.
Meanwhile, citizens across the country are already utilizing social media to communicate directly with companies like American Airlines and Taco Bell to receive real-time, unfiltered feedback. Shouldn’t citizens be able to do the same with elected officials?
Unfortunately, the incredible volume of highly politicized, paid advertising and misinformation diminishes the possibility for authentic communication before it even starts. The American people and their government need a new platform – or a serious modification of existing platforms – to engage each other in a more effective way.
Let me explain.
Most people equate government to politics and vice versa. In truth, there are actually two legally distinct sides to each elected office in Washington — the official side (duties of the office) and the political side (campaigning).
Generally speaking, those two sides cannot — and should not — be mixed. For example, I should not be using official time and resources to fundraise and engage in political campaigns: I need to spend that time talking to my constituents (not just political supporters) and representing their views in the policy-making process.
The division between official and political is reflected everywhere, including social media. For example, I have both official and political Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. Each of them serves a unique purpose.
I use my official accounts to listen to my constituents, explain my policy positions, take criticism, share my public events, and in general engage as many people in Arkansas’ 1st as are willing to listen.
Like any for-profit enterprise, the social media giants operate under models that generate profit for their investors. That model creates a few problems for government officials trying to communicate with constituents in productive ways. As for-profit businesses, the social media companies are happy to take ad money, including money of politically motivated groups who exploit red-hot political topics, misleading news, and national headlines.
Because those political entities and activists have the resources to spend big on targeted messaging in the same space that we are trying to talk to our constituents, meaningful dialogue simply can’t compete and is drowned out. And while I celebrate the success of these companies, their current commercial model should not be confused with a public-serving governing platform.
Our Constitution protects freedom of speech (including angry citizens protesting on social media), and that paid political advertising will remain. However, political advertising doesn’t leave much room for official communication with our constituents, communication that could inform the policy-making process and move us forward as a nation.
Imagine you’re one of my constituents testifying in a committee hearing. You’re trying to tell me how a law under consideration affects you and how the law could be made better. Think how frustrating it would be if a television was on in the background spewing out incredibly loud, irrelevant, or misleading information about the people in the room and the laws we’re talking about. Distracting at best, disastrous at worst if it means we can’t communicate with each other in a helpful way. This is what happens to elected officials and their constituents on social media every day.
I’ve lately worked with my communications team to monitor my official Facebook page in a way that allows a respectful exchange. But as a small government office with limited resources, we can’t compete with the enormous amounts of money and political advertising that drowns out civic, “official” dialogue in users’ feeds.
The political and official spheres are separate for a reason. Politics can be a dirty business, the truth isn’t always honored, polarization is encouraged, and mistrust is rampant. The official side should be a space where as much politics as possible gets left behind, a place where data and testimony drive the policy-making that affect us all. I have no doubt that the same great minds who are actively driving new platforms for commerce and engagement can formulate a new product (or adapt an existing one) that allows elected officials to engage the American people in a civic environment without paid ads and political spending.
I’m not sure what the updated platform should look like. Do we need a new platform, a “GovBook”? Or perhaps just a “civic search,” or “citizen mode” that we can toggle off and on in our current feeds? Or is it enough to label and flag political content as such? I’m not going to postulate further because I truly don’t know what it should look like, but as an elected official experiencing this problem right now, I know that platforms can and should change for the better.
What I do know is that we should put our collective minds together to create an idea-based debate in a space where money doesn’t overwhelm and distort the process. If we can do that, we’ll see better public policy, better relationships between officials and the electorate, and an overall improvement in government communication.