Meaningful Civic Engagement on Social Media — Is It Possible?

Governing a big city or a state is hard work and requires tough choices on a daily basis. Officials rely on their training and expertise to make decisions, but many decisions also boil down to a matter of values or preferences.

For example, programming a traffic light might appear to be a purely technical exercise. But how much time should the engineer allocate for traffic flow versus pedestrian flow? What priority should be given to commuter traffic (main corridors) over neighborhood traffic (low-volume cross streets)? Is it reasonable to ask commuters to wait longer at lights than local residents? Or should it be the other way round?

The way we answer these questions will reflect our values and priorities.

To cite another real-world example, the Austin Police Department recently disbanded its specialist DWI enforcement unit to increase the staffing level of its patrol units, which respond to 9–1–1 calls. The patrol units can still enforce DWI offenses, but there’s no longer a dedicated unit for that purpose. How do you view this prioritization? Is it worth risking more drunk-driving wrecks on our roadways to ensure faster responses to violence and other emergencies? Or should the city just hire more officers?

Or take a state-level issue: property tax abatements for corporations that relocate to Texas. Proponents say that these incentives, known as Chapter 313 agreements, result in jobs and tax revenue that otherwise would have gone elsewhere. But critics say that the incentives result in an inequitable tax system in which favored companies pay less tax than others.

Clearly, this is a program that values economic growth over strict equality in the tax system. (Earlier this year, the Texas Legislature decided to sunset the program at the end of 2022, but in the meantime local governments are still making use of it to strike deals that could last decades, as in the case of a new Samsung plant in Taylor).

You don’t have to be a math whiz or have a PhD in economics to contribute to a meaningful public debate on these topics. Instead, you can share your values and explain why they make you support or oppose a particular policy choice.

Another potentially constructive way to engage on policy topics is to share personal experiences or expectations, as relevant. For example, imagine a citizen who writes a Facebook comment about that new Samsung plant: “I have friends and family who could land a job at the new factory. I’m excited about that possibility.” That provides more meaningful information to shape fellow citizens’ views than just stating, “I support the incentives.”

Finally, you can engage meaningfully on social media by listening well to others. That doesn’t mean scrolling mindlessly for hours. It might mean taking time to read a news article or a post that a friend has shared, and asking her why she shared it and what it meant to her.

Some critics argue that the medium itself is flawed — that the impersonal, mass nature of debates on social media inevitably makes them more toxic, disjointed, and shallow than offline discussions or other forms of mass media.

If that’s so, then why use social media at all for debates over politics, policy, or neighborhood concerns? Why not instead convene a meeting of your neighbors face-to-face? Or try engaging with traditional mass media (newspapers, books, websites, radio)? Or stick with traditional forms of organizing, such as rallies, petition drives, and, of course, voting?

For now, perhaps the optimal solution lies somewhere between full engagement with social media and total disengagement. On the one hand, there’s something to be said for trying to fix a broken thing. So much of our civic discourse is already online that you’ll simply make yourself irrelevant by walking away.

On the other hand, the Big Tech platforms have so many flaws that we can’t continue to rely on them so heavily. They’re like a house with an unstable foundation; if we keep building our civic life on this foundation, it will eventually fall — catastrophically. To avert that, we can try to shore up the building and repair the foundation. That might help for the time being. But in the longer term, it probably makes more sense to start over with something new (or to rebuild some of what was lost).

Big Tech platforms cannot become our sole public square. We need alternatives.

Originally published at https://www.honestaustin.com on December 7, 2021.

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Original reporting on local Austin news, Texas politics, and the economy. honestaustin.com

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Honest Austin

Honest Austin

Original reporting on local Austin news, Texas politics, and the economy. honestaustin.com

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