Guest Commentary: Social Media Attacks Put a Chill on Democracy, Discourage Candidates

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During this last election cycle, we read the social media comments with concern. The level of vitriol and dehumanization was disturbing and upsetting.

If democracy is intended to be the marketplace of ideas, held under a large tent with room for vigorous debate to select the best ideas, then the social media comments section represents a spreading rot through that marketplace.

We’re concerned about the impact this has on our community, including the potential to discourage people from running for office or taking leadership positions. We’re also deeply concerned that when adults behave badly, use name-calling and snarky remarks when they disagree, it doesn’t give an example to our youth that they can look forward to moving into adulthood and participating in the community.

As elected officials ourselves, we believe we should be held to a higher standard. We welcome the accountability that comes with a local newspaper and a social media presence. We understand that our decisions can and should be critiqued and that the public voice is an essential partner in our governing. We have both been subject to angry criticism in response to our actions. While difficult, this is as it should be. When members of our community challenge our thinking, it helps us make better decisions.

The personal, vile attacks, however, represent a different voice, one that destroys the fabric of society and does nothing to edify our community. These attacks skip right over meaningful contributions and go directly to seeking to wound the person.

And more often than not, the worst offenders hide behind anonymity, saying online things they wouldn’t dare say in person. In the past year, we’ve seen our fellow electeds told they should die, called truly offensive names not fit for print, had personal sadnesses mocked and then been told they “deserve it” because they’re elected officials.

We know that it is not just the elected officials who experience this — our community members and children are also subjected to this ugliness. And yes, it might be some of those leaders who are leading the charge with their own poor behavior, which must change too. And even though it might be a minority of people making the attacks, there is a very large community of people who read those comments and see this behavior being normalized.

We’re concerned we’ll see a degradation in the quality of people running for office if they believe they will have to endure toxic attacks on themselves or their loved ones.

We’re concerned this environment will attract candidates who thrive on drama and chaos and punching back — qualities that help posts go viral but do nothing to create good leadership in our communities. We want to encourage people to run for office who have a desire to serve their community, who have backbone and heart. The stronger our candidate pool, the stronger our leadership is as well. Let’s not turn off potential candidates before they start.

Pain, weariness, fear and anger have seeped into people’s bones. The pandemic, inflation, uncertainty and a divisive political atmosphere all contribute to dehumanizing one another. We know these are hard times. We know people are hurting. We are asking you, however, to use social media in ways that advance our community. Help regulate our local community online.

We can’t fix all of social media, but we can influence our own local circles. Discourage hatred, shut down personal attacks. Critique your elected leaders as often as needed but do it without removing their humanity or the humanness of others.

Show each other online that we’re a community that cares about each other. Let your online presence reflect the best of you and encourage others to make our collective experience online reflect the strength of this community.

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Julie Shaffley is a Port of Centralia commissioner and Kelly Smith Johnston is a Centralia city councilor.