Politics in the Age of Social Media

In 2015 I ran for the first time in my life for political office – and I won.

I am a computer scientist with a PhD and MS in computer science. I attributed my success then and in two more elections, in part, to judicious use of social media. Over the past three elections and my four years on the Raleigh City Council, I have experimented with social media not only as a way to conduct a political campaign but also as a way to engage with citizens. The results are both good and bad.

The principle social media that I have experimented with are Facebook, Twitter, and email. There isn’t much nuance to Twitter. There are tweets, re-tweets, and replies to tweets but not much else. Within Facebook there are Facebook pages and Facebook groups. Most people don’t think of email as social media. But email was critical to my success.

In 2015 my campaign wasn’t taken too seriously. I was running against a well-established veteran who had been on City Council for about 18 years. He was well connected locally and well financed. Local candidates typically raise $30,000 or more – a sum of money that was daunting to me. To level the playing field I turned to Facebook and email.

Leading up to the 2015 campaign had been a well publicized fight against a rezoning for a strip mall near my neighborhood. I was heavily involved in that fight. I often spoke publicly to large groups of people. Public speaking was something I began in high school and continued with in college including one year on the college debate team. I was comfortable with preparing and delivering speeches and presentations. Darwinian selection chose me as one of the leaders in the rezoning battle.

After two years we won that rezoning battle. But we were sorely disappointed in our representation on City Council. A few dozen of us who worked together on that issue talked about running someone in the next election. People asked me to be that candidate and with my wife’s blessing, I accepted.

Building on notoriety with the rezoning case, I was able to build a Facebook group with membership growing quickly to more than 500. Between the Facebook group and email, we had a reliable mechanism to reach more than 10,000 people. The reach was exponential as people shared posts and forwarded emails.

The Facebook group consisted of supporters and like-minded individuals. Plus, others discounted my candidacy, weren’t paying attention, and pretty much left us alone. Through efficient communications we raised money and signed up volunteers. We learned how to design and purchase yard signs and as soon as possible deployed more than a thousand of them throughout the community. The yard signs immediately increased my name recognition.

Dozens of volunteers went door-to-door to talk with voters and distribute campaign literature. We supplemented our use of social media with old-fashioned hand shaking and meeting face-to-face with people. I personally, talked with hundreds – perhaps as many as a few thousand – voters myself over the course of ten weeks. On election day volunteers worked the polls handing out literature and asking for votes.

In the end, I won the election by about 250 votes. We leveled the playing field and our use of social media was a tremendous help and asset.

After the election it was time to serve on Council. I very much wanted to stay engaged with people. Following the success of the election, it was natural to continue to use Facebook as a principle means of communicating with people. For that purpose I created a Facebook group.

At first the Facebook group worked great. Various issues came up and people discussed them calmly and respectfully. However, in time I noted a change. Certain individuals started to dominate the discussions. Unfortunately, Facebook groups have few ineffective mechanisms for moderating group discussions. People can post comments of any length and can comment as often as they wish. When a few people dominate the discussion with frequent, lengthy, and aggressive comments, there is a tendency to inhibit discussions from others.

Unfortunately, there haven’t been many alternatives to Facebook. Twitter is even worse. Although tweets are kept short, there is no way to moderate tweets. Between re-tweets and replies, it can be nearly impossible to follow a discussion. And, again, certain threads can become dominated by a few actors – behavior known as trolling.

The ease of dominating discussions in Twitter or Facebook is the greatest weakness of both platforms. It is easy for those opposed to a position to comment repeatedly and aggressively. Doing so has a chilling effect on others. Many times people have approached me in person to say that they follow me on Facebook but never comment for fear of being attacked or swamped by the comments of others.

Thus, going into my third term in office, I have decided to move away from Twitter and Facebook. What is really needed is a medium that uses something like Roberts Rules of Order to guide and moderate discussions. In the simplest scenario, each person gets to comment once and, after doing so, relinquishes the floor to others. That way, each person gets to comment equally with no one person dominating the platform.

To move in that direction, I have turned my website into a blog (which you are reading now). For now, I am posting articles with commenting turned off. I plan to experiment with features for moderating commenting as just described. It is my hope that doing so will lead to better quality discussions that involve more people and elicit a greater range of opinions and ideas.

For now, you can express your opinions about my blog posts by emailing me at david.cox@raleighnc.gov. Depending on the volume I might or might not be able to reply. But rest assured, your emails will be read. I welcome your thoughts and opinions.