Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele has advice for MLAs navigating social media minefields

For MLAs, social media can be useful for community engagement. But sometimes it bites back.

Legislation imposing contract on teachers brought much criticism to Liberal MLAs on social media

A man uses a mini tablet computer while standing in front of a video screen with the Facebook and Twitter logos. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

In the wake of Bill 75, MLAs on the government side seem to be struggling to cope with the criticism.

That's especially evident on social media.

Every politician wants their MLA Facebook page to be a symbol of positive engagement with the community they represent.

Bill 75, which imposed a contract on teachers, spoiled all that. It was a province-wide, controversial issue that engaged many thousands of citizens. Liberal MLAs' social media turned into Velcro for gripes and grievances.

There have been many deletions.

There has been much blocking.

The explanations I've heard are unconvincing.

Social creatures

Bill 75 didn't create these tensions, but definitely brought them to the fore.

Politicians are social creatures at heart. They want to be where the people are.

The traditional way for a politician to know what people were saying was to go knock on doors, or attend public events like church suppers.

MLAs attend the Nova Scotia Legislature to hear Bill 75 read. The controversial legislation imposed a contract on the province's 9,300 teachers. (Robert Short/CBC)

Now they can stay home and interact with more people in one night on social media than they could meet in a month on the baked-potato circuit.

So most of your politicians — followers of the crowd to the end — are all over social media.

The problem is that few of them do it well, especially when controversy hits.

Going bad

There was no social media when I got into politics in 2001, and I never did figure out how to use it well before I left in 2013.

Especially when I was in cabinet, all I saw was how social media could go bad.

One day I was sitting at home in the evening and up on my screen popped a message from someone who wanted to chat.

I recognized the name right away as someone who had sued the government.

Uh-oh.

There was no way I was going to have a private conversation with a litigant.

That one incident made me realize how politically risky social media could be for a politician.

Two-way conversation

A politician can use social media as a one-way bullhorn — think Trump on Twitter — but that misses the "social" part.

If a politician tries to use social media for two-way conversation, the challenges start.

First, and most obviously, there are the trolls, with partisan trolls as a sub-species. Misogyny, racism and hate speech are rampant.

Beyond the abuse, there is the simple democratic reality that a conversation with citizens, once started, doesn't always go the way the politician wants it to.

Liberal MLA Joyce Treen says a man took his opposition to Bill 75 too far after he allegedly bragged on social media about calling her at home late at night. (Robert Short/CBC)

Honeymoons end

I've noticed new politicians tend to be very open with their social media. They think they're social-media ninjas.

But really they're only riding the honeymoon of entry to office.

In politics as in marriage, honeymoons end.

When the criticisms start, the politicians don't quite know how to react.

Do you disallow all comments? Then your social media is a boring billboard.

Do you delete negative comments? Then you're spending time policing your Facebook page, and social media is enough of a time-suck as it is.

Do you start blocking your critics? Once you've blocked for the first time, it gets easier and easier, until all you're doing is blocking and deleting.

Some advice

If I were giving advice to a new MLA about social media, here's what I'd suggest:

  • Social media offers a great opportunity to communicate with the people who put you in office. But you now have 19,000 people with a claim on your attention, and that takes time, and you won't always like what they have to say.
  • You're a public figure now. You can't talk on social media like you did when you were a private citizen. You can't share every thought that comes into your head. Your career could end with one stupid post or tweet.
  • Don't be boring. Partisanship is boring. Narcissism is boring.
  • Set rules and stick to them. Better to start tight and loosen up slowly than to start loose and try to clamp down later.

The best Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are those with relatively non-partisan information and observations, and where there seems to be a genuine conversation going on between the elected representative and their constituents.

That's all too rare.

In the wake of Bill 75, it's obvious most government MLAs are struggling to get it right.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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