One inadvertent consequence of the election has been a surge in interest among the American public in getting involved in politics. People want to contact government officials, attend meetings, and engage directly on the issues that matter to them, and this is really exciting. I’ve been a political animal since before I could walk, and it is thrilling to see people getting as enthused about politics as I am. I also really hope that they stick with it and I’m trying to encourage people to do so both through this informal ‘Resistance’ series and more broadly.
But there’s a thing we need to talk about because I am seeing it more and more lately. Remember how in November I wrote you a handy little roundup on the most effective ways to contact elected officials? I certainly wasn’t the only one coming out with similar guides and reminders on social media, but unfortunately, it seems like people aren’t listening to us, so we need to have this discussion again. People, in one sentence: Don’t tweet, call.
Here’s the deal. I’m seeing a lot of things on social media along the lines of a brief call to action and comment, and an exhortation to recirculate for elected officials to see. You guys.
Don’t do this.
If you want to contact your elected or appointed officials on any issue, you need to call them. Look up their number (it’s publicly listed in oodles of places) and call them. Call. Them. If you absolutely cannot phone for some reason, like they don’t have a TTD/TTY line or you have high anxiety levels or whatever else, fax them. Yes, I’m serious: I, who constantly mock fax machines, must confess that faxing elected officials can be a really good way to reach them. Just write a brief note along the lines of what you would have said on the phone. If you can’t fax, send a physical dead tree letter. Or show up at their office, if you’re near a district office. If you absolutely can’t do any of these things, send an email, but be aware that they aren’t weighted as heavily.
Don’t use social media. Please. Don’t.
Some elected officials are highly active on social media — or at least their staffers are — and they may see and be superficially aware of the fact that people are talking about something, especially if it starts trending and gains traction. But don’t think that contacting them via social media will be effective — because often your comment won’t be seen at all, or it won’t be counted, because they can’t easily verify that you are a constituent.
If you want to call AND issue a call to action on social media to encourage people to also call, by all means! Include those phone numbers and a brief overview of the issue. Encourage them to share it so other constituents will see. But don’t tell people to circulate something for elected officials to look at, because except in very rare circumstances, they are not paying attention.
Okay but you said rare circumstances, so that means they do see them sometimes, right? Yes, they do, and you will know when that happens, because they will actively solicit responses on social media. For example, President Obama used to sometimes ask for questions via YouTube or other media outlets, and even held a few AMAs. When Republicans shut down the feed from the Senate floor, Democratic senators started broadcasting on Periscope. Other public officials have also engaged on social media in a variety of ways. They are usually very clear about when and how they are doing it and how to participate in a way that ensures you will be seen.
Social media has surged in the last decade. I am not trying to devalue or invalidate its value as a form of protest and information distribution, nor am I saying that what you do on social media never affects the government and doesn’t matter. It does matter. However, it can’t be the only thing you do, and this is something that people need to understand — armchair activism and hashtag activism and leaving it to someone else to do is not an option anymore. Just firing off a tweet isn’t going to accomplish the goal you want to accomplish, so make sure that tweet is backed with something.
Think of a tweet like a resolution: It’s a clear public statement that you care about something, but it doesn’t actually come with a mechanism of enforcement. So in addition to passing that resolution, you also need to take decisive, clear action to accomplish the goal you want to accomplish. If you want to comment on something your legislator is doing, call. If you want help with something, call. If your legislator refuses to help you, then you go to social media, and the media, and say ‘I am trying to accomplish a thing, I need my legislator’s help, they are not cooperating.’ Then you make some noise, and use the rallying power of social media to ensure that you become inescapable — because all the people seeing your story on social media are calling your legislator to ask what they think they’re doing.
Making change sometimes requires stepping outside your comfort zone. I am genuinely not trying to be patronising here: I know that a lot of people who are just starting to get involved with these issues don’t know what to do, and they are following leads set by others. I don’t want people to be discouraged and frustrated, but I do want to make sure that they are applying their energies in the most efficient, productive, amazing way. So put down that keyboard, and pick up the phone.
Image: The Reassuring Signs of Progress, Jeremy Brooks, Flickr