One would think the entire world has been taken over by Twitter, Facebook and other social media information tools as their proliferation spreads to all matters relating to entertainment, sports and politics.
For some media dinosaurs they are the wild, wild west backbone of ideas and information. People can now bear witness and even take part in the previously unpleasant information sausage process being grounded into some form of comprehensive narrative.
But as some Hamiltonians recently saw, these social media tools were used to grind down the reputation, ideas and proposals from the city – and a public relations company – over a citizen engagement process called Our Vision, Our City.
After the Jan. 7 launch, the Twitterverse was all aflutter over what in a normal conversation would have been a benign comment, “What is HSR?” But within the social media world, that post exploded into denunciations, acrimony, verbal assaults and down-right bullying.
It also attracted some politicians to the fray, notably Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla, who is never afraid to tread in unfamiliar territory. A prolific social media user, the veteran councillor posted tweets about the company and the controversy.
This is where the social media landscape can become a dangerous game for public figures, especially politicians.
Hamilton councillors are noteworthy for engaging citizens and their constituents over a raft of issues during public meetings, and one-on-one encounters. Social media allows politicians to connect with residents even further, with rapid-fire responses, critiques, and commentary. The significant difference, though, is when a Twitter or Facebook post is made by a politician, it becomes a permanent fixture on the page, captured for near eternity in the void known as the Internet.
That realization has prompted some councillors and city staff to review Hamilton’s code of conduct when it comes to social media. Under the city’s revised polices for councillors there is no specific reverence to how politicians should conduct themselves on social media.
Of course, politicians are required to adhere to the city’s bylaws and conduct themselves with respect towards the public and city employees. But what about a councillor’s comment about an issue on Twitter? Or engaging with a citizen on Facebook, that somehow gets out of control?
Some councillors are worried that a comment, or a heated exchange in the Twitterverse will end up on the city’s website, opening the door for some sort of legal action against the city.
Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead, who managed to provoke a Flamborough resident into taking legal action against him over an email exchange, says the city shouldn’t put handcuffs on councillors when it comes to engaging with residents.
Facebook, and Twitter especially, have already ensnared athletes, celebrities, and other politicians after they have made one too many proverbially foot in mouth posts.
Hamilton has become known as a community that takes its politics very seriously, and demands that its views be known to all. That’s one of the reasons why those social media tools have been so popular as residents use them to engage politicians, their friends, and neighbours.
It would seem to be smart strategy to establish a clear policy to prevent the city and councillors from getting themselves into trouble, while also allowing the free-flowing dialogue that residents expect from their representatives. Politicians are public figures, and must be mindful of how they conduct themselves in public, while still be open and transparent to the community.