Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


State News August: The New Public Sphere

The new public sphere

States officials across the country are using social media to get their message out in a whole new way. They're also using what many are calling Web 2.0 to keep track of information they need to know.
By Mary Branham
When a professor at a regional Kentucky university gave inaccurate information about provisional ballots in the 2008 general election, Secretary of State Trey Grayson found out about it on Facebook.
He and his staff were monitoring the social networking site to keep tabs on the election. Some students at Western Kentucky University posted comments about the professor’s advice, and Grayson saw problems. Not only were the students’ votes not going to count—they were registered to vote elsewhere and couldn’t vote in Bowling Green, Ky.—but the precinct serving the college was running low on provisional ballots.
So the secretary of state’s office contacted the Warren County clerk, who is responsible for voting in the college town, and the professor to alert them of the problem.
“Without Facebook, without Twitter, maybe we don’t find out as quickly as we did in order to get everybody on the same page,” Grayson said.
That’s just one of the benefits Grayson has seen from using the new media, part of what many call Web 2.0, the next generation of Internet use.
Grayson isn’t alone. State and local government officials across the country are finding sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter—with their interactivity and speed—are reshaping government as we know it.
“This transformation (with the use of new media) has allowed government officials to relate and interact with their constituents in a very informal, frequent manner,” said Ben Self, a co-founder of Blue State Digital, which worked with President Obama’s campaign on the use of new media.


Getting into a Debate

And they do interact.
An informal survey by State News found five governors who use four of the five major social networking sites—Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. And 21 others use two or more. Thirty-one states responded to the survey, which is online at
“Governor (Deval) Patrick believes strongly in the power of civic engagement—that government works best when citizens are invested and involved in government processes from beginning to end,” said Brad Blake, director of new media and online strategy for the Massachusetts governor.
Patrick is among the nation’s top connected governors—he uses four of the five major social networking sites, according to the State News survey.
That involvement is critical, said Minnesota Rep. Laura Brod.
“I just truly believe we are at a point in our history that people have got to pay attention because there’s a lot going on that impacts them and also impacts their future,” Brod said.
One way to get them to pay attention is to go where they are, Blake said. “We’re creating ways of getting information to people in the online space where they already are,” he said.
Where they are is Facebook, which has more than 200 million active users, half of whom log on at least once a day, according to the Web site. They’re also on Twitter, with between 4 million and 5 million users, according to Marketing Charts, an online publication covering marketing trends. And those numbers are growing.
“It’s a no brainer for a politician to use the new media,” said Florida Sen. Dave Aronberg. “You’re not going to be misquoted if you are the one sending out your own communication. It’s also a great way to engage the voters in a two-way conversation.”
Aronberg and Brod regularly tweet—the term used for the 140-characters-or-less message sent on Twitter—to share news from the floor when their legislatures are in session. That keeps their followers up-to-date on issues of the day.
But both legislators found the use of Twitter and other new media led them in other directions.
“I was using it as a messaging tool and then it morphed into a linking tool,” Brod said.
The medium allowed her to link to people who agreed with her, as well as those who disagreed with her. “It was a very effective way of creating debate around issues,” she said.
Aronberg encourages dissenting opinions. “I don’t want to hear only from people who think like I do,” he said.
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