Many mistakenly believe social media’s only purpose is to keep in touch with immediate, personal networks. But sites like Twitter and Facebook are also emerging as a way to affect change when it comes to the political realm–and modernize outmoded political practices, like the traditional town hall meeting.
According to the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Americans use social media sites. And 66 percent of those users–or 39 percent of all American adults–have used social media to engage in at least one of eight civic or political activities, including encouraging others to vote, promoting material related to politics and social issues, reposting content, and following elected officials.
That’s a huge number, and it has broad implications for the future of civic engagement. Social media aligns nicely with politics because it affords everyone a platform to make their individual voice heard. Now, we’re also seeing social media platforms used to push efforts in the physical realm–like modernizing the town hall meeting.
Many years ago, the town square was used as a public gathering place for locals to come together to discuss current events. Social media is, in essence, our new town square. Increasing ownership of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets means we can break down geographic barriers that formerly prevented some citizens from fully engaging in the political process. Social media now serves a very important purpose: it smashes traditional restrictions of time and place.
Even if citizens can’t make it to a town hall meeting in person, they now have an opportunity to connect online. In 2011, Barack Obama used Twitter to address questions from the public during a town hall meeting. By noon, he had received more than 60,000 tweets. Plenty of other politicians and leaders have followed. In May 2012, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) used Twitter to answer questions on rising gas prices. Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) hosted his first-ever Twitter town hall in December, taking questions under the hashtag #AskPryor.
Social media offers an easy way for anyone with an Internet connection or mobile device to share and discuss news, opinion, and legislation affecting politics today. Leaders and politicians who want to stay in touch with their publics simply cannot afford to ignore this medium as a tool for civic engagement any longer.
For those in positions of power, here are a few tips for using social media to engage in a town hall meeting:
1. Create a specific Web page to contain information about the meeting — the invitation, the agenda and instructions, and finally, a summary, outcomes and related articles after the fact.
2. Pick a hashtag that’s easy to remember, and remind your constituents to tag tweets.
3. Add speaker hashtag and Twitter handles to all promotional materials leading up to the event.
4. Include your Twitter handle in your email signature.
5. Ensure you provide a digital copy of all newsletters, and include a shortened link to make them shareable.
6. When the event is over, provide a link to a transcript that includes all answered Twitter questions along with your response.
7. Use a storytelling site like Storify to pool the best tweets and questions into one cohesive stream.
Social media affords us new opportunities when it comes to civic engagement. Politicians who choose to ignore this platform are effectively blocking important public discourse. Don’t shut the door on your constituents–use social media to start the conversation.