Politicians explore the power and pitfalls of social media

Posted by on Jun 23, 2011

Social media shifting rules for local politicians
Kyle Slavin, Saanich News

Frank Leonard wants to be your friend.

The Saanich mayor – and many of his council colleagues – regularly use politically motivated tweets and Facebook wall posts to make their opinions known to their followers. The most lively issue of late? Light rail transit.

Leonard and Coun. Dean Murdock have been debating the issue with one another, along with public input, on Facebook.

Leonard recently told the News he is hesitant to openly support a $950-million plan for regional light-rail because he wants to know whether taxpayers favour the tax increase needed to foot a portion of the bill.

Murdock, a staunch supporter of public transit, commented on Facebook saying, “Mayor Leonard would prefer we had the lump of coal that is traffic congestion.”

Leonard responded with, “I see my young colleague has mocked me … It is unfortunate that to point out that a major expenditure will cost more taxes is considered politically incorrect.”

Coun. Judy Brownoff, also on Facebook, commented (without naming names): “Typical of ‘old time politicians’ … society has changed and future planning politicians know about taxes and we know how to manage projects like this! Old time politics 101 scare taxpayers before you know what the increase will be.”

Councillors Paul Gerrard, Vicki Sanders and Susan Brice are also on Facebook, along with many of their Victoria and Oak Bay counterparts.

Janni Aragon, senior instructor of political science at the University of Victoria and an active social media user, says politicians need to have a web presence on social media but must balance personal opinion with professionalism.

“We all get braver and bolder behind our keyboard, our monitor, and forget about the repercussions of the things we post or we tweet,” she said. “As their political selves … it’s a way for them to connect with people.”

Leonard says he uses Facebook tool as an alternative dialogue, though he’s quickly realizing there are downsides to having an open forum.

“It’s not a private conversation. You have to be aware of what you put on there. It’s an open conversation and it’s there forever,” he said. “You always, whether it’s at the grocery store or the coffee shop, get feedback. This is simply a virtual way of having that same conversation, but you reach a whole lot more people at once and it’s all out in the open.”

Murdock agrees. He says he’s glad this back-and-forth on light rail happened on Facebook because it allows for more public input that will ultimately lend to a more “informed debate” if it comes before council.

“The council agenda is fairly rigid. We don’t have an opportunity to open up a conversation with the public or with other councillors, so Facebook is a great way to throw something out there and get feedback,” he said.

“And we often hear from people (online) who wouldn’t necessarily come out to a council meeting or who may not come out to a community event.”

But disagreement among political colleagues on Facebook is no different than disagreement in council chambers, Murdock said.

“That’s exactly what the process is all about. It’s healthy to have these kinds of debates,” he said. “It benefits the overall discussion on a complex and controversial issue like LRT.”

Aragon says politicians who use social media as a forum for discussion – which is what is currently happening – must understand the proper way to use it to their advantage.

“You can’t think of it as new media … it’s media,” she said. “And it’s about being social media savvy.

“But (politicians) also are out in the public. They don’t have the same sort of privacy as most people. There can be repercussions for something that’s said online – there are lots of people who aren’t cognizant of that.”