All Teched Up

 Opening General Session speakers discuss the importance of social media and civic engagement

The ways in which people communicate with each other, with government and with lawmakers have been swiftly changing during the last five years. There are now more ways for constituents to communicate and more ways in which lawmakers can engage citizens and gauge public opinion about their decisions and actions.

While the Legislature is awaiting its next session, the questions for county officials and other groups turn to the future: What role will technology play in the legislative communications process in January 2015? What tools will we be using then, and how do we learn to use them effectively before it’s crunch time? 

“Too often, emails, texts and tweets take the place of establishing professional and personal relationships with legislators and their staff,” said TAC Legislative Director Paul Sugg during the TAC Legislative Conference’s Opening General Session in August. “How do we take the best of the old ways and meld them with the new? How do we honor the past as we move toward the future?”

Technology was front and center during the conference’s general sessions, videos of which can be found on TAC’s YouTube channel ​at Sugg moderated a discussion on change and tradition featuring a distinguished panel: Former Speaker of the House Pete Laney; Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock); The Texas Tribune Executive Editor and Co-Founder Ross Ramsey; and The Quorum Report Editor Harvey Kronberg; Afterward, Cary Roberts, a legislative consultant for TAC and managing director of The Herald Group, LLC, spoke about civic engagement in a wireless world; and the Closing General Session featured TAC Network and Systems Manager Morgan Holkesvik speaking on how to avoid attacks on hardware and data.

The Rise of Social Media Consumption

Social media may have once been the domain of teenagers and college students, but now it’s a powerful civic engagement tool used by advocates to sway public opinion, spread information and propaganda, build consensus and gather data about voters and residents, said Roberts.

“You know that uneasiness you are feeling, that everything is changing and moving too fast? Well, the tech industry calls it disruption,” Roberts said. “It’s an apt description of what is happening as technology and everything collides — technology and business, technology and education, technology and government, technology and life.”

Technology has so transformed communication during the last five years that the International Telecommunication Union — the agency that oversees communications for the United Nations — stated in 2011 that broadband access is a basic human right.

The ways in which citizens consume information have also changed, thanks to social media and mobile tools such as smart phones and tablets. Most people no longer have to even leave their couch to look something up on the Internet or check their email; they reach into their pockets. Information is spread more immediately and more thoroughly now than ever before.

“(The social media news site) Mashable reported on a study that found that the amount of time Americans spend consuming digital media is set to eclipse the amount of time spent watching television for the first time this year,” Roberts said. “A Nielsen study found that Facebook attracts more 18 to 24-year-olds during prime time viewing hours than any of the four major television networks. … In 2010, people spent 24 minutes a day on mobile devices. This year, it’s five times as much — 2 hours and 22 minutes a day.”

To put it another way, Roberts said his 18-year-old nephew, described as a somewhat shy college freshman from Nacogdoches, sent 10,583 text messages in just one month — or 353 text messages each day, 22 each waking hour. “He can vote, but you’re going to have to send him a text,” Roberts said.

The rise of social media sites also means that more and more, people aren’t going out to search for news, because they don’t have to. Instead, news is coming to people via the organizations they’ve “liked” or followed on social newsfeeds and their Facebook and Twitter friends.

Legislators like Gonzales are adapting to the new media. Gonzales, whose district includes many high-tech companies, said most of his constituents communicate with him via Facebook, Twitter and emails, and those are the same mediums he uses to communicate his activities back to constituents.

 “With so many people having an opinion on every single piece of legislation these days — because they have access to it — it’s important to be out in front,” Gonzales said. “Social media gives us the tools to constantly message what we want to say.”

Information Age Challenges and Opportunities

The rise of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and other Internet and mobile applications present both challenges and opportunities to lawmakers and information seekers. 

The biggest challenge is perhaps the amount of information available: it’s absolutely physically impossible to sift through every news site, every political blog, every study.

“In 2012, last year, some 2 trillion minutes of video traversed the Internet every month. That translates to 1 million years per week of everything from video selfies and nanny cams to Netflix downloads,” Roberts said. “Between 2005 and 2012, the quantity of Internet data increased 1,696 percent. … An IBM report from last year concluded that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every single day and that 90 percent of the data existing in our world today was created in the last two years.”

To help address that challenge, the White House created the National Big Data Research and Development Initiative to use technology to sift through and analyze large data sets of information. Stakeholders believe that doing so will help Americans solve the country’s biggest problems.

“Imagine a world with an expanding population but a reduced strain on infrastructure, dramatically improved health care outcomes with greater efficiency and less investment, intensified threats to public safety and national borders but greater levels of security, more frequent and intense weather events but greater accuracy and prediction in management,” Roberts said. “Last year, the United Kingdom diffused riots during the London Olympics by monitoring conversations on social channels and using, even pinpointing, the exact location of troublemakers using geo-location features.” 

Another challenge is navigating not only the amount of fraudulent information on the Internet, but the numbers of fraudulent users — called “bots” — posting harmful information. Bots are software applications that are programmed to imitate human behaviors, and they can be used for anything from spreading viruses to influencing the stock market and changing public opinion.

“More than half of the Internet traffic already comes from non-human sources like bots or other types of algorithms,” Roberts said. “These bots are programmed to tweet and re-tweet. They have personality quirks, life histories, built-in databases of current events, sleep/wake cycles.” 

Bots spread misinformation by making use of herd mentality behaviors — as soon as one person “Likes” something or re-tweets something, others will as well. We like what our friends like and support what our friends support, and social media tools automatically broadcast our own likes to others. 

But it’s also easier and cheaper for individuals to take their messages and spread them themselves. Whereas political candidates once had to fight for newspaper space or pay for a television or radio ad, there are no longer any financial obstacles to sharing knowledge. 

“Make public what you are doing and why you are doing it so there are no questions,” Gonzales advised county officials. “It protects you from somebody trying to change history on you, because there are so many half-truths to be said.”

Fortunately, people are coming up with creative solutions for spreading truths, Kronberg said, mentioning an August debate between Sen. Dan Patrick and State Board of Education vice chairman Thomas Ratliff. The two were facing off about CSCOPE, a series of lesson plans developed to help school districts meet curriculum requirements. Patrick had joined the crusade against the lesson plans, introducing legislation to stop schools from using them and challenging others to debate him on his Facebook page.

“(CSCOPE) had become characterized as anti-Christian, anti-patriotic, pro-Muslim… there were a whole series of urban legends,” Kronberg said, adding that the debate didn’t go as Patrick planned. “In most political debates, it boils down to you said/he said, and you get to decide which person you believe more. … Ratliff did something innovative.”

Ratliff created a document that included lesson plans and other information and put it online so that he could reference the information throughout the debate, and listeners could peruse the document’s information as it was being discussed. Throughout the debate, he told audience members which page to turn to.

“You could see this specific lesson plan did not advocate terrorism or compare the founding fathers to terrorists,” Kronberg said. “It was a breakout in terms of putting the real information in front of the real people in real time.”

The speed with which communications technology is evolving also presents several challenges, particularly for government. Policies become out-of-date or have widespread, unstudied consequences. Information on legislation might reach the public faster than it reaches the legislators themselves. And citizens expect government to integrate the latest technologies into services as soon as they have integrated the technology into their own lives. 

In short, technology changes much faster than the law and government can, said Gonzales, who is on the House Technology Committee. “I’m still having to explain to 120 members on the House floor what the cloud is and I can’t get the policy implemented if I’m still trying to explain what it is. So guess what, 2013 is gone. When is the next chance I get? 2015,” he said. “You know what is going to change in a year and a half in technology before 2015? Not only are we behind as a state, we are getting further and further behind every single day.” 

Internet addiction is another real obstacle with looming consequences, as social media and its associated programs are designed to get users to keep clicking, click after click after click.

“The Machine Zone is where you go when you just can’t stop looking at pictures on Facebook,” said Roberts, adding that mass social media addiction hasn’t happened by accident, but by design. The same theories and methods used by slot machine designers to keep Americans sitting and gambling have been employed by software programmers to keep Americans clicking. 

“Designers and web developers have built a system that elicits compulsive responses from people that they later regret,” Roberts said. “Have you ever tried taking an iPad away from a 5-year-old?”

But with all those challenges come innumerable opportunities for self-expression, civic engagement, activism, education and global conversations that just couldn’t have happened before the Internet age. After all, all it takes is one trending Twitter hashtag to create a national news story. Social media has played crucial roles in everything from the prosecution of the Stuebenville rape case to Syrian attacks on The New York Times. “We are now living in the age of the socially empowered citizen,” Roberts said. 

Many companies and political organizations have taken those opportunities to the next level by analyzing social media users and creating campaigns targeted to specific audiences. The information that can be gained through social media is so great that ads and campaigns can target individuals based on everything from their purchasing history to their religious affiliation.

Counties can use the information to create more efficient and effective services, target information about services to individuals and more. 

“The best companies today are relentlessly data driven, and counties should be no different. You just have to think like a start up,” Roberts said, adding that nothing has to happen all at once. Improvement is an evolution. “Like those apps that you are constantly having to update on your phone, they call it ‘iteration.’ (It means) we just have to try it and keep improving it.”

The Legislature and the Socially Empowered World

he evolution of communications technologies has already begun affecting the legislative process, the political media and the ways constituents and advocates connect with each other to build a movement, forward an idea or voice dissent. 

“Part of the DNA of organizations like The Texas Tribune and like The Quorum Report is … to try to remove the advantage of the insiders to the royal court as much as we can, so that the people outside can play the same game with the same information that the players have,” Ramsey said. “We can put the tools that have always been on reporters’ desks, many of the tools that have always been on your desk, into the hands of everybody else.”

The result is that legislators are receiving criticism and support for their actions in real time as concerned citizens watch proceedings online via news organization websites. Citizens, empowered with information once held only by journalists and legislators, are starting blogs and their own news sites, both credible and uncredible. And nobody has to get out of their pajamas to sign an online petition or start a campaign with hashtags or an Internet meme.

“This new technology has afforded the public to know more about what’s really happening, rather than what you tell them is happening,” Laney said.

When it all culminates, 182,000 people are at home watching The Texas Tribune’s YouTube channel, live-streaming a marathon filibuster related to abortion access by Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) during the first special session. Not only did Wendy Davis become a national icon with gubernatorial hopes, but the live-streaming audience itself became national news. 

 “They were tweeting and Facebooking and emailing in real time as it went on, and the people who were on the floor of the Senate participating in it, many of them and many of their staffers were reading the feedback,” said Ramsey. “This whole thing became this giant, organic machine.”

Of course, not all those tweets and messages were accurate or meaningful. The global conversations occurring now via social media create a lot of noise, a lot of rumors and a lot of false information that citizens and legislators must somehow learn to sift through.

“There is that old line that, predates all the things that we do, that half-truth can run around the block while the truth is still putting it’s shoes on. … We are not really trained, all of us, yet, on how to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff,” Ramsey said.

The noise and misinformation makes it harder for individuals to trust what they see and what they read. Mistrust is one of the reasons why individuals tend to stick with the news sources they know best, rather than branch out into ideas and concepts they are less familiar with. “There is an impulse, especially among your voters, to read that which reinforces what they already believe,” Kronberg said. “The art now is to break through the chatter and be taken sufficiently seriously by the people who are decision makers and the people who can influence voters.” 

The amount of misinformation on the Internet and the speed with which it can spread are two reasons why Gonzales dedicates so much time to social media and his own front-end messaging. 

“One of the biggest things we dealt with last year was an email from 2005 on the margins tax talking about the over 65 exemption. This thing is seven years old,” Gonzales said, adding that the date didn’t matter: it spread on both Twitter and Facebook anyway. “I will stand up and I will have a conversation about things I did all day long, but it’s very frustrating to have a conversation about the things that I didn’t do all day long.”

To help ward off misinformation, Gonzales publishes a weekly newsletter during the session that acts as a complete history of his actions and decisions regarding issues and bills.

“When I am in Appropriations, I wind up scanning in many of the documents that they give me and I post that to my blog,” Gonzales said. “I want people to know what I’m hearing. I want people to know what I’m looking at. … I can go back now and look at 20 weeks worth of newsletters that we wrote on the issues at that time in the heat of the battle with all the emotion. It’s all chronicled there for us.” ✯​

Photos, from top: 1. A full room of county officials listens on as legislative consultant Cary Roberts talks about the rise of social media in the legislative process during the TAC Legislative Conference’s Opening General Session. “We are now living in the age of the socially empowered citizen,” Roberts said. 2. Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock) talks about how he uses technology to engage his constituents as Former Speaker of the House Pete Laney (right) listens on during a panel discussion at the 2013 TAC Legislative Conference. “Social media gives us the tools to constantly message what we want to say,” Gonzales said. 3. The Texas Tribune Co-Founder and Executive Editor Ross Ramsey speaks during a panel discussion about how technology is changing the media. “We are not really trained, all of us, yet, on how to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff,” he said. 4. The Quorum Report Editor Harvey Kronberg discusses the challenges of communicating with people in the information age. “There is an impulse, especially among your voters, to read that which reinforces what they already believe,” he said.


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