How Twitter has changed local politics

As social media becomes more pervasive, local officials have seen their constituents use social networking sites as tools for community building and political discourse. 

Newark Mayor Cory Booker has used his Twitter account to connect with his constituents on pertinent issues. Many of them have used social media to engage in political discourse or campaign for community action.

Lynette Barnes, a southern New Jersey native, was initially hesitant about moving up to Newark for a job. It’s not unusual for those who are familiar with the city’s crime rate. 

In a matter of weeks, though, Ms. Barnes started to look past those first impressions. Newark started to grow on her, from the beauty of Nat Turner Park to the constantly engaged mayor, Cory Booker. Soon, she started looking for ways to get more involved in the community and help improve living conditions in public housing, asking the mayor himself about volunteer opportunities. All it took was a couple of tweets and she was connected with the nonprofit Jersey Cares.

“[His social media presence] honestly makes living in the city easier,” says Barnes. “It definitely has allowed for me, a new resident, to feel more connected.”

Mr. Booker has become a paragon for politicians looking to gain a wider following, yet his exchanges with residents like Barnes manifest a movement that is bigger than him. Every day, Newark residents take to Twitter to express support, complaints, and everything in between, and people in other cities do the same. Within cities, residents have taken advantage of their direct connections to local officials via social media, using Twitter and other networks to spread ideas and build coalitions.

Two months ago, Booker told a crowd at the South by Southwest conference in Austin that politicians, as well as their constituents, have a responsibility to use social media to serve one another and facilitate change in politics, media, and society at large. 

“What I want to see is the soul coming back to our politics,” he said, “the vile and the hatred beginning to drain out, the understanding that we need each other, that America started with the declaration of independence but really the truth of America is really a testimony to a declaration of interdependence, that we rely on each other.”

People within Newark and all over the world tweet at Booker about everything from a broken streetlight to marriage equality. For locals especially, however, it has become an outlet through which people raise awareness about pending legislation, ongoing conflicts, and more. 

Houston Mayor Annise Parker saw local residents and business owners use their online presence to fight increasing parking regulations that were considered in the City Council’s parking ordinance. 

In the months leading up to the council’s vote on a parking ordinance, residents and business owners shared their concerns about increased regulations, leading to a more flexible law catering to each neighborhood. 

"I support easing regulations on food trucks, but no majority on Council and not much pubic support. Where is @OKRAFried on this?," She tweeted at Houston's Organized Kollaboration of Restaurant Affairs.

That exchange was one of many that led to a flood of comments from food truck managers, independent business owners, residents, and others within Houston who either wanted lower restrictions or certain compromises to accommodate their needs.

“Though we had many community meetings discussing the change, the issues they [people on social media] brought up were valid,” she says. “We contacted the groups, had additional stakeholder meetings, and came to a great compromise. The additional input helped us create a better ordinance that benefits all of Houston.”

As residents become reliant on social media, it becomes increasingly important that local officials have to join the conversation, Parker says. What matters most is not that they set up Twitter and Facebook accounts, but that they use the platform to listen to their constituents.

“I’m on Twitter and I do reply to tweets when I have free time,” she says. “As elected officials, we need to continue listening to the community and learn what they are concerned about.”

Barnes says she was pleased to see the mayor help her find ways to address her concerns about housing in Newark. Through Jersey Cares, Barnes says, she was able to look into ways of addressing the living conditions in apartment complexes and public housing. She had seen Booker respond to her friends about uncollected trash and other local issues, but she that getting a response from him herself reassured her that he cares about the city.

"In Newark, it's a given that Cory Booker is not [crooked],” she says. “As a politician, you know he is interested in advancing his political career, of course, but you see that he is also working for the good of the residents, to help the residents.”

Booker’s interactions with his residents have shown how active constituents can become if given the opportunity. A resident will tweet about a broken stoplight or uncollected trash and Booker will reply with a phone number or a simple “On it.” He either ends up addressing it personally or finding a phone number for the person to call. The more people who see Booker’s prompt responses, the more who are willing to contact him if they have an issue or need assistance.  

Booker has seen residents connect with local organizations or projects, using Twitter to rally support behind community projects and pertinent issues. The social network has sparked what Booker considers an increase of people pushing for progress at the grassroots level.

"They [my residents], through their leadership and activism on social media, are increasing the speed of their own government by becoming active partners. In the '90s, they started talking about an e-government. Now we're talking about a 'we' government."

This is the first in a two-part series about social media's impact on local politics.



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