Between meme-spewing bots, concerns about fake news and the constant presence of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed on the morning news, social media played an outsized role in the political news of the day in 2017. On a smaller scale, social media has also found new routes into Walla Walla politics.
Local elections and politics have been low-key affairs online in Walla Walla over the past several years, but new Council members are pushing those frontiers.
Elsewhere in the Walla Walla Valley, cities are cautious about Council members’ social media use:
Riley Clubb is the only sitting City Council member with a public Facebook page.
Council member Myron Huie has a private page where he occasionally posts publicly viewable Council-related content, but none of the other council members have public-facing social media pages or profiles, and some don’t use social media at all.
That’s been the norm on the City Council for some time.
Clubb isn’t the first Council member to use Facebook in connection with his position, but he’s certainly the most visible sitting member on the platform.
As one of the Council’s younger members, and one with a history in the tech industry, Clubb said he has been on Facebook almost since its inception in 2004.
It’s a familiar territory for him, but being in the public eye has changed that in some ways. Clubb has a personal Facebook page and a Twitter account that apparently went dormant early in 2017.
During last year’s election, on the advice of former City Council member Chris Plucker, he set up his page to reach out to voters. Plucker served on the Council from January 2012 through December 2015 and maintained a public social media presence throughout that period.
“Nobody else who was on council was really using that medium,” Plucker said.
During the election, he said, his page was used to post about the campaign as well as about issues facing the community; after the election, it became a place to foster community discussions. He recommended Clubb follow that lead.
Clubb said it’s worked well for him, but that he’s still working out the kinks now that he’s off the campaign trail.
“It’s a very natural place for me to interact with people I know,” Clubb said. “But now I’m interacting with many people I don’t know. And it’s a two-way street, right? Because I would like to know more about constituents, people I haven’t met, necessarily, and they probably also want to know more about me.”
In a town as small as Walla Walla, Clubb said, decisions about what to post where can get complicated.
“Let’s consider Donald Trump, maybe, or Hillary Clinton, or another major national political figure,” he said. “Their private sphere is obviously much, much less than their public sphere, so there’s not as much overlap. My public sphere is probably smaller than my private sphere. I have more friends on Facebook than I have following my political page.”
Clubb said he’s leaning toward merging his two accounts and “giving up this whole idea that I could possibly have a private social media life and a public social media life.”
Still, he said, it’s important to him to try it. “I understand my job to be a representative, and you can’t expect to represent your constituency if you don’t know what they hope, and fear, and desire, you know, what their wishes are,” he said.
Other council members are skeptical of social media’s use in public discourse. The city’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts run through the office of Communications Manager David Brauhn, serve to promote city services and make announcements about street closures or leaf pickups to social media users. In the eyes of many council members, that makes for plenty of social media presence.
Myron Huie, who also used a Facebook page to promote his recent successful Council campaign, said he’s done with the page now that election season is over. “I haven’t figured out how to deactivate it yet,” he said. “I’m not interested in dealing with any more politics on social media.”
Jerry Cummins said he has a personal Facebook account, but he’s only friends with about a half-dozen close friends and family. He tries to respond to all to the emails and letters he receives at his city of Walla Walla email address, he said, but only the ones that are signed.
“With social media, people have been able to say and do things ... and not identify themselves,” he said. “If people want to say things, do things, and identify themselves, I have no problem. But I do not appreciate having people say things, and do things, and not identify themselves.”
He uses Nextdoor, a social network that partners with the city to create networks around neighborhoods, and has created websites for campaigns in the past, but his correspondence with constituents is mostly through email.
Cummins also noted the city’s servers are set up to comply with Washington’s public disclosure laws by entering all correspondence into the public record. Social networks, he said, can make that disclosure complicated.
“I think it’s important that I use the public records system for public disclosure,” he said.
Even so, Brauhn said the city is well set up to follow public disclosure rules on social media. Walla Walla uses a program called ArchiveSocial to keep records of city-related social media activity.
“If you’re using social media for purposes of your elected position, then we have to back that up,” Brauhn said.
But it’s surprisingly easy to do that, he said.
“It’s not super time-sensitive, because the archival process is retroactive, so I don’t have to be fearful of not being compliant now — if there’s a request, we can start the archival process,” he said.
Mayor Barbara Clark and Mayor Pro Tem Tom Scribner said they weren’t sold on social media either.
“I’m already spending more time on my computer than I really want,” Clark wrote in an email. “I suppose I could make the time if I thought they offered a productive way to create public policy, but my experience is that what works best is respectful conversation among people with a variety of perspectives and an intention to work together for the benefit of all of us who live, work, and play here.”
Scribner was even more direct in his opinion of social media.
“It would be very, very difficult to teach this old dog any new tricks,” he wrote in an email.
He suggested anyone interested in city governance could attend the Council’s meetings, listen to recordings of them, read about them in the newspaper or call or email council members directly.
“Or stop us on the street for a face-to-face conversation — those of us, that is, who still walk anywhere,” Scribner wrote. “Much of social media, I think, is silly and trivial.”