Phenomenal growth in the use of social media is altering the ways that community members perceive and interact with each other. “Your community is online,” social media expert Colin Rule says to community leaders. “You need to be online too.” This report focuses on how community leaders seize the opportunities and confront the ever-changing obstacles created by the increasingly pervasive use of social media and proliferation of social media platforms as these leaders address community division and civil unrest.
In terms of new opportunities in the context of community division, community leaders can now use social media and apps to provide a reliable source of information for residents, to improve their ability to hear and serve constituents, and to strengthen connections among residents and their pride in community.
In terms of new challenges, unrest can occur with little warning; those concerned about an issue now have inexpensive and effective ways to tell a story, stir emotions, create a sense of involvement in a larger movement, and give notice of protest plans. Community leaders can be even more challenged than before the social media age to distinguish between peaceful protesters and those seeking to take advantage of civil unrest for malicious trouble-making. False rumors spread quickly. Leaders can no longer count on traditional news sources to combat inaccurate news, as residents shift their news intake to social media. Hate speech and bullying online have targeted disproportionately those groups already feeling the sting of discrimination and estrangement from the larger community.
This report offers strategies for community leaders dealing with community division against the backdrop of these opportunities and challenges. It includes examples of what community leaders have done as well as advice from leaders and social media experts. We use “community leaders” to include elected officials, such as mayors, and appointed officials, such as police chiefs and agency directors, as well as business, faith, civil rights, and interest group leaders who also have the opportunity to help communities turn division into positive change. Increasingly, some of the people with substantial social media followings are also community leaders. The suggested strategies deal with social media platforms, web-based networks, and even apps created by cities.
Community leaders are variously using the following general strategies (discussed under these section heads in more detail), each of which warrants creation of accompanying policies and training.
- Use social media, websites, and apps to create widely-used and trusted online information sources for residents that will help maintain and enhance residents’ confidence and become an antidote to inaccurate news and unsubstantiated rumors.
- Use social media, websites, and apps to increase input from residents in ongoing decisions respond to residents’ concerns.
- Use social media, websites, and apps to promote offline, face-to-face events and to support online dialogue among residents in order to build community resiliency.
- Work to reduce and combat online hate speech/discriminatory conduct through social media so as to reduce the effects.
- Mine social media and other online data as part of an overall ongoing initiative to better understand community concerns.
We suggest that you begin reading with the chart that follows immediately in Part II and lists strategies pertinent to three different situations: during tranquil times, during unrest, and following unrest. Use the chart as a stress test for your community – have you taken advantage of all the opportunities social media offers for building trust and dealing effectively with divisions? If you want to learn more about a particular idea, these strategies are discussed in more detail in Part III (the strategies briefly identified in Part II link to detail in Part III). Part IV is a glossary of social media terms. Part V provides sites that offer additional guidance on social media use by community leaders.