There is no question that the social media have proven to be of incalculable value in opening up government to its citizens. Live streaming, Twitter and Facebook all allow for real-time dissemination of public meetings and conversations that many stakeholders could not otherwise attend or follow. In Hamilton, the proliferation of local blogs has shed light on issues that might have gone unexamined. Government documents are now available online for examination to a degree that would be unthinkable even a decade ago, and, hopefully, with the advent of open data, much more will be available in future. That’s the positive side of social media in public discourse.
Regrettably there is another, darker side of the social media boom. We first saw it a few years ago when local newspapers started posting reader comments on their websites. The comment pages initially attracted a wide range of views but gradually the comment pages were taken over by anonymous, ill-informed and often vicious commentators. Now, sensible or balanced comments on these sites are greatly outnumbered by those from a group of people who have one thing in common—incredible anger—a level of outrage that seldom seems justified by whatever topic is under discussion. Much of what passes for comment in these forums is shouting and name-calling.
The people who manage Hamilton’s most popular blogs and Twitter sites have with some justification, a sense of empowerment. Content is king, and nobody will come back to a website that fails to provide something interesting and engaging. But, as with all media, it is a thin line between empowerment and entitlement—between activism and vigilantism. In the case of the launch of the Our Voice Our Hamilton website last month we saw social media misused in what became an exercise in something akin to mob mentality. Within hours of the launch of a website designed to engage the public in a serious discussion of public policy, a Twitter campaign was organized for the sole purpose of thwarting a project that offended their sensibilities. At the root of the outrage it seemed, was the fact that the consulting firm, Decision Partners, was not from Hamilton and therefore had no right to moderate the public engagement project. The error the firm made in clarifying a respondent’s comment on the HSR was trivial—it certainly did not justify the mass outrage that was manufactured. Twitter participants took it upon themselves to act as judge and jury in organizing the flooding of the Our Voice Our Hamilton site. In doing so they, put at risk the $376,000 that the taxpayers of Hamilton paid for the project. Its good to hear City staff say that usable material has been salvaged from the work done so far, but the attackers couldn’t have anticipated that as they engaged in their essentially jingoistic mischief. Citizen journalists can perform useful service to the community with activism around open government, and with the provision of coverage of events and issues that otherwise wouldn’t be available, but there are some basic rules in journalism. One of them is this, if you want to be taken seriously, you can’t march in the parade you are covering. And it wouldn’t hurt to lose some of the narcissism, anger and self-indulgence that is all too prevalent on some of these Hamilton sites.