To tweet or not to tweet: politics in the social media era

Red Deer’s city council isn’t afraid to get social.

Red Deer’s city council isn’t afraid to get social.

In fact, most members of the nine-person council are adamant that having an active online presence is crucial for politicians in today’s evolving world of social media.

They argue that Twitter and Facebook are clear avenues that allow them to get out messages, connect with residents and to hear the good, the bad and ugly happenings in Red Deer.

Coun. Dianne Wyntjes said she delved into the online world when she began campaigning in 2010 because she did not want to fall behind and miss connecting with the new generation.

Now a second-term councillor, Wyntjes has among the most active Twitter and Facebook accounts on council.

She tweets city press releases, posts city information on her Facebook page and chats with residents with a click of her mouse.

“For those who are not on it (social media), I think they are missing opportunities to be able to connect with what people are thinking and the pulse of the community,” said Wynjtes.

She said she has to be clear that she is not speaking on behalf of the City of Red Deer council when she says something online. While she enjoys the new technology, Wyntjes said nothing beats face-to-face conversations.

First-term councillor Ken Johnston also jumped headfirst into social media while he was campaigning for the 2013 municipal election.

Johnston said he is committed to staying with social media because he reaches a segment of the community that he would not normally be in frequent contact with and he wants to be accessible to the entire community.

“If you’re not in social media to any degree, you really aren’t engaged at all,” said Johnston. “I really challenge the logic of any politician that is not connected into social media when they are saying they are trying to be engaged.”

Johnston said social media allows politicians to hear instant feedback on policy decisions.

Johnston said his former life in the banking world gave him a heads up on what should be shared in online public forums.

Johnston said the public is drifting away from engaging with the politicians at town hall meetings and public houses.

“I would encourage anyone who truly wants to engage in the political process to go on social media and find their councillors, MLAs and MPs and I think they would be pleasantly surprised at how much contact they can have.”

As with anything, there are downsides to social media.

Wyntjes said politicians have always been under scrutiny and social media has only intensified the examination.

Two recent examples stem from the 2013 municipal election campaign.

Council hopeful Jonathan Wieler tweeted a picture of his election ballot after he voted at an advance pool. The twitterverse was quick to pounce and Wieler deleted his tweet and released a public apology over his rookie mistake.

“You are always on camera,” said Wyntjes. “Somebody can always take a snapshot. Some ways it’s all about information but for me it’s how you handle that information.”

Following a mayoral forum, Coun. Paul Harris said he tweeted in frustration when one candidate said the previous council had watered down her policies.

Harris tweeted it was more like the other way around. Harris said he did not regret the tweet but it did cause some backlash because Harris said he was misinterpreted.

Harris deleted the tweet and posted a full explanation on his Facebook page.

“People took great offence to it and didn’t quite understand what I meant,” said Harris. “I took four or five paragraphs explaining what I meant. I felt what I wrote (on Facebook) was far more scathing but people liked it better.”

Harris said this incident is a perfect example of the pitfalls of Twitter — the challenge of trying to be clear and concise in only 140 characters. These days, Harris keeps his emotions in check and shares more facts and information about the happenings in the city.

“You have to look at every way possible to reach people or for them to reach you,” said Harris. “There are multiple avenues to talk to people and multiple ways of connecting and we have to use all of them.”

While Coun. Buck Buchanan hasn’t tweeted since Oct. 16, the third-term councillor said there is no doubt that using social media as an avenue for getting out messages and connecting with residents is essential. His first tweet on Sept. 25 included an apology about being new to the social media game.

Buchanan has his misgivings about using Twitter specifically because, like Harris, he said being misinterpreted can cause a lot of headaches and heartaches.

Plus, Buchanan says he has too much to say within Twitter’s 140-character limit.

“I know just enough to make myself dangerous,” laughed Buchanan.

Coun. Frank Wong has found his voice on Twitter using his smart phone to snap pictures at the G.H. Dawe Centre or an event he is attending. Wong said he likes to highlight the city events that he attends on behalf of council.

But all councillors agree that social media isn’t the be all and end all in connecting with residents.

Harris said there was an assumption floating around during the election that the people using social media were a good representation of the community. He estimated that about 10 to 15 per cent of Red Deer’s population is social media savvy.

“There’s different ways that we have to communicate with people,” said Harris.