You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have … being an elected official on social media.
Kevin King, chief of public policy and public engagement for St. Pete mayor Rick Kriseman, has a front row seat – sometimes with popcorn – to the drama that regularly unfolds on Kriseman’s Facebook page. Even seemingly innocuous and happy posts on things like the reopening of the St. Pete Pier aren’t safe from negative comments.
“On one hand, it’s really awesome that we have these tools, and I think it does bring people closer to their elected officials and public servants,” King said. “People feel more empowered and that’s a good thing. But like anything, there are downsides and you just have to navigate them.”
Kriseman launched his personal Facebook page when he began his campaign for mayor. He was elected in 2013. Since then – and especially in the last several months when everyone has been stuck at home – his page has been steadily growing in popularity. More than 16,000 people like it, and an additional 20,000 follow him. It’s like a large online family, and like in any family, not everyone always sees eye to eye.
“The longer he’s been in office, the more his page has grown, and the more it has attracted folks who aren’t necessarily interested in receiving communication or engaging in constructive dialog,” King said. “It’s kind of the nature of social media.”
Kriseman’s a pretty busy guy, so while he does do his own posts and will check in on discussions, he also has staff members who help him monitor the page’s activity and answer questions. Although it’s Kriseman’s personal Facebook page, as an elected official everything on it is subject to public records laws. That’s why no one gets banned or blocked, and unless Facebook filters them out, comments don’t get hidden or deleted, though people often think they do, King said.
“No one deletes comments, as anyone can clearly tell by reading it,” King said with a laugh. “Everything is what it is.”
King said that the tone of Kriseman’s page is reflective of his personality, and the approach he and his team use when interacting on social media is to keep things light and to not try to fight fire with fire.
“You don’t want to be savage, you don’t want to be mean,” King said. “The number one goal is to be informative.”
That means wearing many hats. Sometimes it’s about responding to misinformation that’s being spread, a huge challenge considering the amount of it that’s out there. Other times, it’s simply answering requests for information.
“We really try to get people the answers they deserve because we work for them,” King said. “We can’t be desensitized to the needs people have. Not everyone is adept at Googling or searching for answers. They just want someone to tell them what’s going on.”
Another hat that must be worn is that of a traffic cop – because sometimes arguments can get out of hand.
“The mayor will sometimes remind folks to be kind and civil,” King said. “But you kind of have to let the discourse play out. If someone says something ludicrous, that will hang out there forever.”
For example, some people have started calling Kriseman a “Nazi” because he wears a mask.
“He’s Jewish. I don’t know that everyone knows that, but calling him a Nazi is an interesting insult,” King said. “But he generally takes everything in stride.”
Heather O’Leary, an assistant professor of anthropology at USF St. Pete, said that despite the occasional negativity, having people connect with their elected officials on social media is an important step forward.
“It’s opened up an avenue for so many new people to participate in the political process,” she said. “It’s giving more people in the community the opportunity to raise their civic voices.”
Right now, O’Leary said, everyone is going through the learning process of how to best interact online. However, it’s critical to democracy to figure out this important channel of communication.
“It’s the responsibility of our representatives to try and learn how to best manage the community conversations,” she said. “If we can do that in person at meetings, then we can learn to do it online, too.”
And when that can’t happen, King said, sometimes the best way to respond is with a well-placed GIF of Michael Scott from The Office crying.
“Maybe it’ll make someone laugh,” he said.