Politics has changed in the 21st century. What used to be an intensely personal, relationship-based electoral process has become disembodied, replaced by cyber relationships on social media. Facebook elected Donald Trump, and Facebook and other platforms now play an integral part in local politics as well.
The shift of politics into the realm of social media activates people who in the past took little notice. It takes far less effort to chime in with an opinion or comment than it does to walk neighborhoods, attend coffees, or participate in candidate forums, but this ease of expression is a double-edged sword. Democracy optimally relies upon an engaged and educated electorate willing to pay attention to issues and policy positions when deciding which candidates or issues to support, but as the 20th century drew to a close, voter participation in America had shrunk to less than 50 percent. With the rise of social media platforms, that percentage has risen, but the level of discourse has not.
To the contrary, the quality of political discourse keeps sinking lower.
Facilitated by the frequent use of anonymous identities, insults and innuendo dominate online posts and comments; often what is little more than rumor is presumed to be truth. We witnessed this during the past firestorms in Sonoma County, when misinformation about evacuations and fire outbreaks put lives at risk. Sorting truth from fiction during emergencies can be a matter of life and death.
Facebook (Next Door, etc.) is a shaming machine, and it’s often used as a tool of intimidation, not a tool of education. People say terrible things about others they’ve never met, and then are joined by a mob of mean-spirited commentators eager to pile on. Reputations are damaged and characters impugned, all without consequence to those who ignorantly or maliciously start the shaming ball rolling: pot-shots and easy insults, often by people out of the loop or maybe even from out of town. They say things you’d never say to someone’s face.
Local elected representatives mostly used to be people who had become well known and respected in the community for volunteering their time at events, participating in nonprofit activities, or sitting on commissions. Sadly, that era seems to have passed; social media and Facebook now play a leading role in attaining office. The danger in that, of course, is that online talk is cheap; demonstrating a lasting commitment of time and energy to the community is much harder.
There may be no going back to how local politics used to work, but we think it’s worth a try. Walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors to meet and greet voters face-to-face may be an inefficient and time-consuming activity, but meeting voters at their door at least is real. Attending or watching council meetings can be boring, but it’s better than relying on rumors or secondhand reports. There’s no good substitute for well-informed and engaged citizens; it’s just that simple.
— Sonoma Valley Sun Editorial Board