BERLIN – When Berlin resident Bill Todd came up with the concept of renaming the town’s newest park for a popular mailman, one of the first things he did was share the idea on Facebook.
The positive comments posted by his social media followers were enough to convince him to launch a more formal effort. He placed petitions in local shops and used Facebook to promote the cause. It was there he informed the online audience of his plans to share the signatures he’d collected with the town council last month.
While a number of community members supported Todd and the idea of a “James Tingle Park,” Berlin Mayor Gee Williams was critical of what he considered the effort’s roots in social media. He says during his eight years as mayor it’s the only time his first indication of an issue came through social media. Platforms like Facebook typically don’t mean much to him as mayor.
“I give little to no weight to issues of public debate or opinion that are transmitted by social media,” he said.
The problem, according to Williams, is that it’s too easy for provocative, uniformed opinions to be shared online.
“During this relatively early era of the Internet, the bar is ridiculously low for individuals to tap in a few impulsive words or thoughts on social media, hit send, and expect to initiate a meaningful discussion on public policy…,” he said. “In my one lifetime of experience, I have found that everyone has an opinion on almost everything. But when it comes to identifying, discussing and determining public issues and policies, I maintain that opinions in and of themselves have limited value, but informed opinions are essential to responsible, fair and balanced public policy decisions.”
His view isn’t one held by all public officials. In nearby Ocean City, it’s not uncommon for elected officials to reference issues and comments they’ve seen on Facebook. Councilmember Mary Knight makes a habit of monitoring social media sites.
“I find Facebook extremely helpful to get the pulse of what constituents are thinking,” she said.
Knight is cognizant of the fact that anyone and everyone can share their views online. She reads the comments posted on Facebook but also keeps Ocean City’s list of registered voters handy.
“You have to be careful because you might see 100 comments on something and then pull up voter registration to see only 15 percent live in Ocean City,” she said.
She admits it’s easy to give positive feedback a lot of weight. While negative comments can be hard to take, Knight says they can often be enlightening. There have been times when citizens have made points online that Knight hadn’t even considered.
“It helps me ask the right questions,” she said. “It enables me to get more information. When people are so negative I do get a little depressed but at least I know what the negatives are.”
Knight, who is also chair of the resort’s tourism committee, says social media sites are very helpful in sharing public announcements and information. Williams, too, sees the value in social media in that regard.
“I believe social media is already useful for the dissemination of objective facts, such as notification about events, weather warnings, emergencies and other public services,” he said.
The Town of Berlin regularly shares information on municipal meetings and events on its Facebook page. Williams said that had proven to be a quick way of informing a large audience.
According to Jennifer Cox, a professor for the Salisbury University Communication Arts Department, the various social media platforms have had a huge impact on the way politicians and government officials communicate with constituents. That impact has been positive in many regards. Consider, as Williams pointed out, how government leaders can now reach a vast audience with a single Tweet, or the way citizens can share their thoughts on municipal policy changes on a town’s Facebook page.
Cox says that while the interactive exchange social media sites enable is a good thing, that doesn’t mean those sites are always the most effective means of communication.
“Skilled public relations practitioners can cultivate images of candidates or frame ideas on social media that are most beneficial to their cause without acknowledgment of opposing viewpoints,” Cox said in an email. “Messages online are often misinterpreted, given their brevity, undistinguishable tone and a lack of education on the proper ways to communicate points effectively online.”
She referenced President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter.
“We have just witnessed a president get elected who repeatedly spreads misinformation and falsehoods via social media because we as a public are not media literate enough to check facts and make critical distinctions between public relations messages and vetted facts,” Cox said.
“The danger is not the platform; it is the consumer. Until we as media consumers take on the task of verifying information ourselves, we will be woefully misinformed and subject to aggressive campaigns to replace our Democratic process with propaganda and lies.”
Identities, too, can be difficult to verify on social media. Williams says pseudonyms are used to provide anonymity. He likens the practice to sending a newspaper an unsigned letter to the editor.
“When I was a local newspaper editor for 30 years, I gave unsigned letters the attention they deserved by tossing them directly into the trash,” he said. “I believe we all should do the same by deleting unattributed social media posts.”
He believes one of the biggest downsides to social media is the way it’s led to what he sees as a common acceptance of a lack of civility in digital discourse. Williams also worries about the way digital platforms can be “twisted” to promote destructive messages.
Knight, however, says there are vast differences between social media use on the Eastern Shore and social media use across the country.
“It’s nothing like national politics,” she said.
While social media might boost divisiveness elsewhere, Knight says that as an elected official it’s enabled her to develop a stronger relationship with her constituents. The online interactions have helped her get to know her fellow residents and understand their concerns.
“I look at it as the more information the better,” Knight said. “Social media and the Internet allow politicians to have a plethora of information. What they do with it is up to them.”
Cox says social media has become a means of communication with “astounding saturation.” She does not consider it a fad that’s going to fade.
“Most Americans are on social media, and we have seen platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, become crucial to the creation and circulation of online petitions and the organization of campaigns,” she said. “These movements are not to be taken lightly.”
She used the recent Women’s March in Washington D.C. as an example — more than 500,000 protestors took part, organized primarily by social media.
“Social media has become one of the fastest and most effective means of gauging and swaying public opinion,” Cox said. “The danger is when you limit yourself to following people who only think as you do. This creates an echo chamber of support for your own opinions without the benefit of challenges that might cause you to rethink or better defend your assertions. If lawmakers are only following or acknowledging constituents from their own political party, a crucial piece of the democratic process gets lost.”