Statistics from the 2012 election remind us that the relationship between social media and politics is here to stay.
Leading up to the election, the first presidential debates passed a Twitter milestone, prompting 10.3 million tweets to be sent during the political event. On election day, users encouraged their friends to vote using the photo-sharing app Instagram, generating over 680,000 photos with the hashtag #vote. On Facebook, there were 71.7 million election mentions, making the event the most talked about event of 2012. After his victory, Obama sent out the most shared tweet in Twitter’s history, a picture of him and Michelle, which received over 800,000 retweets. The list goes on.
While these numbers speak volumes to the importance of social media in national elections, where do local politics fit in?
If all politics are local, then civic engagement starts at the local level. Not only do civically engaged citizens contribute to their local communities, but involvement in politics at a local level leads to a stronger democratic system nationally. A democracy cannot function without citizen participation, making civic engagement the cornerstone of democracy at the local level.With sensationalized issues like the fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, gun control, and drug policy at the center of the national discourse, it’s challenging to capture the attention of middle class Americans when it comes to local issues like potholes or library renovation. From work to providing for one’s family, most adults have little time to attend community town halls or arrange to meet with their local representatives.
That’s where social media comes in. The power of social media in mobilizing citizens is undeniable. With little to no money, social media provides politicians, activists, and voters a platform to speak from and provides a microphone to the masses.
And when it comes to using social media effectively in local politics, Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, has figured it out.
“What we need to start doing is finding ways to give more people the tools necessary to influence world around them, not let them be drowned out, glossed over or ignored. When you let their voices be heard, it becomes less ideological, you’re opening arteries and dialogue, it becomes infinitely more pragmatic about getting things done and making a difference.”
In order to foster a strong political process, local politicians must remove the barriers to participation, and by becoming more accessible, they promote participation among those struggling to balance local politics with their everyday life.
For example, in an effort to engage with his constituents, Booker takes the time to personally respond to his 1.3 million Twitter followers:
I hear your concern though your data isn't true. Can we discuss? DM me ur # RT @akwesq: Armed robberies at my school have increased 10-fold
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) January 30, 2013
Locally, social media allows politicians and community leaders to speak directly to their constituents and include them in the political process. With the click of a mouse, users can directly contact their local representatives, a phenomena that is both under-used and under-appreciated.
What makes social media even more appealing to local politicians who lack the Super PAC funding and party backed donations is that it is free. San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria told IVN:
“Social media allows for me as an elected official to quickly and inexpensively disseminate information directly to my neighbors and, perhaps more importantly, it allows for San Diegans to provide feedback and have a dialogue with their representative instantly.”
Just like any relationship, however, it takes two to build and sustain. Both leaders and community members must take advantage of this newfound accessibility in order to produce a more direct governing process.