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Officials learn new rules for chat on social media

August 26, 2013

By Tyler Graf

On any given day, Washougal Mayor Sean Guard checks his Facebook account a handful of times.

His online compulsion, so to speak, draws him to the social media site to drop words of wisdom, offer shout outs to emerging businesses and occasionally throw some jagged elbows at his political opponents. By now his daily Facebook posts come as second nature, even though no one would confuse him for the second coming of Steve Jobs.

“I am one of the most computer illiterate people around,” Guard said. “I don’t think I know how to change my photo on Facebook.”

Still, since Guard started using the social network in 2009, the onetime computer neophyte has racked up 1,241 friends. Today, he views social media not just as an important tool — but a necessary and, at times, dangerous one.

And he’s not alone.

The prevalence of Facebook and micro-blogging sites such as Twitter and little-used Tumblr have created a Brave New World for politicians, even those with previously Luddite tendencies. For Guard, and other public officials, it’s a way of communicating directly with constituents.

Studies show that around 72 percent of Americans are on social media. With more than 1 billion active users worldwide, Facebook has moved beyond its early days, when it was a connecting point for college students and a repository for photos of creative drinking practices. It has become, essentially, the Internet within the Internet, linking all aspects of the online world together and creating both a sounding board and connecting point.

According to a 2012 Pew Internet and American Life Study, 66 percent of social media users, or 39 percent of all Americans, have used social media to engage in a form of civic or political activity. The study found that social media users who talk about politics on a regular basis are the most likely to use social media for civic or political purposes.

The study concluded that 38 percent of users of social networking sites use the media to promote, or “like,” posts related to politics with which they identify.

Michael Rabby, a communications instructor specializing in social media at Washington State University Vancouver, considers social media a timesaver for politicians.

“At the local level, it’s an easier means of communicating than going door to door,” Rabby said. “And it’s certainly less invasive.”

But the rise in politicized social media also creates what’s known as a silo effect. People take partisan sides from which they don’t deviate and only follow politicians with whom they agree, Rabby said.

Washougal Councilman Brent Boger has a sizable Facebook presence — 2,397 friends and counting. He muses on local politics, as well as broader issues, such as the tenets of classical liberalism.

Boger has a very simple rule for his Facebook page: Keep it interesting. He’s aware of just how many “likes” each of his posts receives.

Of social media, Boger said it allows people to get to know their elected officials better. “Of course,” he added, “we only put in there what we want to put in there.”

He’s no stranger to Web-based controversy, either. That happened last year, when he wrote posts voicing dissatisfaction with the local Republican Party, of which he was a member.

That act rankled some of the Republican rank and file, and Boger ended up apologizing to some of the party leadership with whom he had a personal relationship. Read more in The Columbian.

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