Anticity Toxicity

Posted on May 3, 2024

A close-up of hands typing on a laptop surrounded by red bubbles with negative messages such as "hate u" surrounding the hands and keyboard.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Jackie Wehmeyer, Senior Director of Strategy and Intergovernmental Affairs for the City of Parkland, FL. Connect with Jackie on LinkedIn.

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Social media has become a powerful tool for public engagement and dialogue in the Internet era, particularly in local government. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram give residents unique access to their elected officials, enabling them to voice concerns, share feedback, and participate in community conversation. However, one of the biggest downfalls of this communication technology is the disturbing rise of incivility.

In social media involving local government, incivility can take various forms, such as personal attacks against officials, the spread of misinformation, and the amplification of harmful speech. The consequences of such incivility are far-reaching and can negatively impact both individual residents and the entire community.

One of the primary concerns surrounding incivility on social media is its potential to erode trust in local government. When public discussion is reduced to name-calling, harassment, and mudslinging, it creates an environment of hostility and animosity. This not only weakens the credibility of elected officials (whether or not they are part of the verbal sparring) but also reduces public confidence in local government’s ability to effectively address community needs.

Likewise, incivility can block meaningful conversation and problem-solving. When discussions are led by anger and negativity, productive exchanges of ideas can become rarer. This can block productive input for developing good policies, fostering innovation, and building consensus on important issues facing communities.

The viral nature of social media means that incivility can quickly spiral and have lasting consequences. A single inflammatory post or comment can cause widespread outrage, fueling polarization and creating rifts within communities. This can lead to a cycle of negativity where distrust is the norm, hindering any effort to bring residents together through cooperation.

There are some efforts communities can make to address incivility on social media: 

  • Elected officials and government agencies must make it a priority to foster a culture of respect and civility both online and offline. This includes setting clear expectations for acceptable behavior, enforcing community guidelines, and being models for proper online communication. 
  • In your own government organization, have a conversation with elected officials about not “taking the bait” from residents who wish to draw them into the fray. Your Communications Department can be a great resource for this, as well as examples of how to outline talking points/facts and how to respond to residents on social media without being provocative.  
  • Provide opportunities for resident input wherever possible but make them meaningful by encouraging diverse viewpoints to be heard. Sometimes the absence of a chance to be heard forces negative voices to insert themselves. By fostering empathy and understanding and encouraging a sense of shared purpose and community identity, we can help our residents feel less polarized.

Ultimately, addressing incivility on social media in the context of local government requires a collective effort from elected officials, community leaders, and individual residents. As local government leaders, by recognizing the harmful impact of incivility, and committing to respectful and constructive engagement, we can help to transform social media into a vehicle for positive interactions with, and between, our residents and our organizations.

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