Lawmakers Experience Social Media Growing Pains
A day after one of their colleagues was criticized for using social media to communicate with her constituents on Facebook during a 17-hour hearing on gun control, a group of lawmakers and staffers gathered at the Legislative Office Building to learn about how to better communicate with their constituents on social media.
Just hours earlier, Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, decided to take down her Twitter profile because the messages she was getting from people, who don’t necessarily follow her, were painful. She described them as mostly comments from those “propagating and expanding attacks” from individuals who oppose the gun control legislation she’s introduced.
“Part of what’s going on is a misunderstanding,” Bye said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Bye, who doesn’t even sit on the gun control subcommittee of the legislative task force, sat in on the 17 hour hearing because for the first time in her legislative career she proposed gun legislation. She also spent two hours last Saturday at a gun club in Simsbury talking to gun owners about her proposed legislation.
Bye still has her Facebook page where messages of support for her work ethic and engagement have poured in after an NBC 30 report in which one person alleges she wasn’t paying enough attention to those testifying.
“They apparently think because I proposed these bills that I’m the enemy,” Bye said.
It prompted her opponents on the issue to take their complaints on Twitter to conservative talk show hosts to try to make their photo and their cause a viral sensation.
The photo of Bye on her Facebook page was taken and posted on CT Gun Owners’ Facebook page and shared 1,279 times as of 4 p.m. Wednesday. The first comment was from Andrew Spalla who said, “Guys, lets make this viral. Put her on the national stage to be portrayed as a pinhead.”
But Bye isn’t going to be deterred from using Facebook because of the incident.
One of Bye’s constituents, John E. Hardy, wrote on her wall: “I appreciate the Senator’s ready availability and willingness to use modern technology to interact with the public. More Facebook use Beth, not less.”
Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, one of about a handful of lawmakers who frequently use social media, said “the attacks on Senator Beth Bye for using Facebook during a public hearing are some of the silliest political nonsense I have ever seen.”
“The gun safety hearing she attended ran from 10 a.m. one morning to 3 a.m. the next morning — and Senator Bye sat there for hour after hour, giving those testifying her respect while using email, Facebook and other social media to keep in touch with her constituents. She should be commended,” Lesser opined on Bye’s Facebook page.
Others who were unable to watch the hearing on television, thanked Bye for giving them periodic updates about what was happening at the hearing. Bye doesn’t use her Facebook page for recreational social activities, she said she uses it to communicate with constituents.
“It’s part social, part informational,” Bye said of her Facebook page. Allowing the constituents to get to know you through Facebook helps them feel comfortable reaching out in person when they need help with an issue, she added.
Katie Harbath, associate manager for policy at Facebook, said social media has given politicians and constituents the ability to engage with each other in a real-time way that never existed before.
Harbath, who was previously the chief digital strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and led digital strategy at DCI Group, the Rudy Giuliani for President campaign, and the Republican National Committee, said politicians are using social media to tell constituents how they voted and why they voted a certain way.
But social media is a two-way street. Lawmakers can also use their Facebook page to ask their constituents questions about what they think about a certain issue, Harbath said.
Rep. Ed Vargas, D-Hartford, one of the two freshmen lawmakers who attended the social media forum, said he’s not using Facebook as much as he would like. He said he needs to transition the campaign page and is struggling to find the time.
“It’s gotten a little more complicated,” Vargas said pointing to all the new bells and whistles Facebook has to offer.
Harbath warned the group that they’re never going to be able to keep up with everything they follow, but they should try to post at least two to four times per day. She said they’ve recently found that engagement peaks on Facebook at between 9 and 10 p.m.
Engagement apparently doesn’t peak at the state Capitol at 9:30 a.m. because only five of the 187 state lawmakers attended the forum, which was sponsored by AT&T.
Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who helped organize the forum, was a little disappointed.
He said traditional forms of media are “fractured” and “as legislators and public officials we have to put information out there.”
Julie Germany, vice president of digital strategy at DCI Group in Washington, told lawmakers and about three dozen staff members Wednesday that one of the benefits of social media is the ability it gives politicians to bypass traditional forms of media and communicate directly with their constituents. She said it eliminates the media filter.
“As a legislator who represents almost 100,000 people, I have found social media to be an invaluable tool for communicating with constituents and gathering their feedback. I find myself posting to both Twitter and Facebook almost every single day, and I believe that doing so has made me a better public official,” Duff said in his invitation to lawmakers to join him Wednesday.
But Duff understands that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for constituent communication. He said he communicates with his constituents in many different ways, and social media is just one more way. He said people are in a lot of different places these days and you have to find them and get them engaged.
Duff also acknowledged that lawmakers have different styles, and some may be more comfortable handing the social media reins over to their staff, while other like him, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy are more comfortable handling it themselves.
To find out if your lawmaker is on Facebook, Aldon Hynes of Woodbridge who blogs at Orient Lodge has put together a list. There are also about a dozen lawmakers who are active on Twitter, including Duff.