Opinion: The power of social media in local elections

Budd Berro

By Budd Berro. The North Mecklenburg municipal elections this past November provided the latest and most visible examples of the expanding role of social media in local politics.  With platforms such as Facebook and Twitter only becoming accessible to the general public around 2006, the next six years provided an opportunity for those and other mechanisms (including elaborate websites and E-Mail) to fulfill an important role in civic engagement.

As has been observed in many corners of the world, social media is a vital tool that can be used to inform, mobilize, and advocate for various audiences and constituencies, especially those groups of individuals who feel insufficiently represented or informed.  This has also been the case in recent years in North Mecklenburg:  While print, broadcast and web-based media (some locally oriented) have tried to provide sufficient local news/analysis coverage within the context of their respective (profit-oriented) business models, a need has continued to exist for additional information, assessment and a challenging of the status quo.

The development within at least the last five years in North Mecklenburg of social media platforms that focus on (for example) major transportation concerns, growth and development, governmental transparency, public health and political representation is a testament to both the need for the content provided by those platforms and the resulting impact on governmental transparency, public deliberation and policy and actvual electoral results. These impacts suggest more than just a correlation with the emergence of local social media during the last five years:  there is a clear level of causality as well.

Of course, as with any tool, social media can be detrimental to its own objectives if it is not exercised and used in an appropriate fashion. This challenge is readily apparent at the national level, but perhaps even more so at the local level where more individual participants in social media platforms may have personal knowledge of and contact with each other.

A good argument can be made that productive discourse in the civic community that leads to more transparency, information, analysis and sound public policy should be held in a reasonably civil manner.  As in any democratic setting, any individual should be heard, all facts and reasoned opinions brought to bear, and everyone involved should feel heard, respected and confident that they can access those platforms in the future on as yet-undetermined topics and issues. In short, social media should focus on expanding its audience and not creating an environment where that audience can become self-selecting and therefore marginalized. Social media platforms should also try to be sure that they are transparent about themselves, their leadership and source of their resources – it is easier to argue for transparency from others when the advocates for transparency try to set those standards for transparency themselves.

In summary, social media has played, will play and should continue to play an essential role in local communications, policy formulation and elections – as with any tool, its degree of success will inevitably be linked with its own level of professionalism and prudency.

After a more than 30-year career in banking and finance, Budd Berro worked for Gov. Perdue as her Piedmont (33-county) Director and briefly assisted with the transition to Gov. McCrory. He most recently was the business director for a private school, and is treasurer of the Democrats of North Mecklenburg.


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