Social media helped elect candidates, especially in last November’s elections.
Now successful candidates who have become legislators are using platforms such as Facebook to gauge how to vote, how to govern — and also as a means of maintaining their base of support.
On one hand, it seems innovative and appropriate to me, especially among members of the House of Representatives, which is, after all, the people’s chamber.
On the other hand, it strikes me as just a tad scary: for instance, no one should ever take my advice on budgeting or economics. Sure, I have opinions on the social economy, but not particularly reasoned, analytical or thought-out opinions.
And I’m guessing that’s pretty much the case when it comes to most of the input offered by the majority of voters — ardent and heartfelt most likely, but reasoned, analytical and thought-out — I’m not so sure.
But for now, I rather like the idea, with just a few reservations.
To get a sense of how this works, take a look at Rep. Jon Runyan’s Facebook page.
Here’s the 3rd District Republican’s recent post, primed with a Fox News report on President Obama’s budget:
I promise to keep you posted on my thoughts as the budget debate proceeds in Congress. Today, though, I want to hear your opinion on where we should make significant cuts and what our spending priorities should be in the upcoming budget. Try to keep it to just a sentence or two. Thanks.
President Obama is sending Congress a $3.73 trillion spending blueprint that pledges $1.1 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade through spending cuts and tax increases.
What follows are 71 comments — and counting.
The comments range from what you’d expect — don’t waste money, cut everything, don’t cut defense, help veterans, audit the Federal Reserve — to the less expected: the need to address Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and yes, cut the defense budget.
One commenter even suggests that the federal government is “perpetuating” a “fake terror situation.” Told you I have some reservations.
There are even several criticisms of Runyan’s vote to extend provisions of the Patriot Act, criticisms that will remain posted, according to Chris Russell, the campaign consultant who helped create the Facebook page.
Runyan directed Russell to leave all criticisms posted, as long as they are not crude, though he admits, “It is a little bit of wild, wild west medium.”
Leaving the critical comments in place overcomes my main concern, that the site is little more than a campaign tool, though it is run by Runyan’s campaign committee, not his congressional office.
And while Russell admits that staying in touch with the 7,500 voters who’ve joined the page is important since members of congress stand for election every two years, he also said that the responses, which are read by Runyan, gives the freshmen congressman a “good pulse” of the district, and allows him to set priorities and vote accordingly.
While most of the comments posted about the budget were in line with expectations, Russell said he was a bit surprised to find that some commenters are willing to trim needed services and the defense budget because they understood that there was not enough savings otherwise.
I contacted a few of the people who posted. Uniformly, the chance to stand on a soapbox and tell their congressman what they believed pleased them.
“This is an awesome way to communicate, especially if there are opposing views,” on the site, said Toms River resident Joseph Rudy Rullo, who installs solar energy systems and took after federal subsidies for oil companies in his post.
Marlton medical supply owner Kevin Rodgers said, “First, I was happy that Jon asked for input. That shows he is trying to give consideration to what the people want.” Rodgers’ posted response showed he’d done some basic research and given the matter some thought, suggesting some of the biggest and least efficient bureaucracies in Washington to trim.
My favorite responses, though, came from Jose Gonzalez, a Cherry Hill resident studying finance at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
He’d posted in favor of supporting education, not the typical stand among those writing to Runyan.
He liked the chance to take a stand.
As he wrote in an e-mail to me:
“I think Runyun's use of social media is just him utilizing his resources. We're already in 2011 for God’s sake. How could a congressman not want use the social media to reach their supportive audience? It's a no-brainer if you ask me...unless their audience is from the silent generation and beyond.
“Now, I'm not a full supporter of Runyan, by any means...I just agree with some of his views on washington...not all, but a few.”
A fair and free exchange of ideas in a democracy through social media is a beautiful thing — as long as it isn’t limited to 140 characters.
Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning columnist and reporter.