Is social media the modern-day letter to your congressperson? Some would argue it is. But is anyone really paying attention on the other end of @LegislatorXYZ? Perhaps.
The most recent test of how well social media works to direct traffic at the intersection of public opinion and policy just might be the saga of how the popular ride-booking companies Lyft and Uber made their way to the streets of Nevada.
In a tale made for the set of a daytime soap opera, online ride-hailing in the Silver State had a stormy past (at least for Uber), complete with legal friction, impounded cars and pissed-off tourists. But in mid-2015, state law laid the framework for the companies to operate and drivers got to work again this month.
As with most things in politics, getting from point A to point B wasn’t as simple as logging into an app, booking a ride and meeting legislators at an end destination. Those involved will tell you it took work and gathering support to get state law to the governor’s office.
Social networking sites like Twitter played a big part in the conversation and gathering signatures for an online petition. Celebrities, weekend visitors and citizens used the online tools at their disposal to raise awareness of an issue they thought needed to be addressed.
Chelsea Wilson, spokesperson for Lyft, said the outpouring of support over social media was an invaluable tool in getting the attention of stakeholders and lawmakers in the Nevada Legislature.
“Social media is a natural way for people to express themselves nowadays,” she told Government Technology. “In terms of advocacy, it’s what we’re seeing the community use naturally.”
The spokesperson said Lyft did not actively pursue an online support campaign in Nevada, it just sort of happened “organically” with help from followers and supporters.
Uber, on the other hand, was at the wheel and hitting the gas when it came to driving support in the state. The company even went as far as posting the emails and phone numbers of senators to prompt fans to reach out prior to important votes.
TOMORROW: Critical vote to bring Uber back to Nevada. Email and call these senators TODAY! pic.twitter.com/DGAfvYljCA— Uber Las Vegas (@Uber_Vegas) April 8, 2015
In addition, the ride-sharing titan also managed to gather support the “old-fashioned” way through an online petition that garnered nearly 60,000 signatures. This too was advertised on the company’s Las Vegas Twitter account.
After being allowed to operate in the state starting Sept. 15, Uber updated its petition portal: “You spoke, and your leaders listened. With the stroke of a pen, Nevada became the latest in a growing list of states to embrace smart ridesharing regulations that support innovation, expand economic opportunity, and put consumer choice and safety first."
Uber spokesperson Taylor Patterson also referred to the public forums as a “natural way” to engage the state’s online community.
"Social media was a natural way for thousands of people to instantly share their views with local policy makers, sign petitions and rally others to engage actively in the process that led to a change in regulations at the state level," she said in a statement to Government Technology. "With over 60,000 people signing a petition to bring Uber to Nevada and hundreds more tweeting and emailing their representatives, Nevada lawmakers commented on how incredibly impactful the voices of the people were in supporting the effort that led to cars on the road today."
Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, was one of the lawmakers on the listening end of outreach efforts. As an active participant in posting, tweeting and sharing himself, he was aware of the impassioned efforts, but couldn’t speculate as to exactly what role they played in putting pedal to metal at the policy level.
Though he is digitally well-connected, some of his colleagues are not.
Despite this fact, Atkinson said there is no doubt that social media has changed how information travels among lawmakers and the public – change he sees as both good and bad.
“We get to hear from people we wouldn’t normally get to hear from,” he said. “[Social media is] just another way for people to be heard. I think people are moving away from the traditional ways of contacting their public officials.”
Though he originally resisted the pull of online networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, his tune quickly changed when colleagues were receiving instant updates on legislation moments after an important vote. The old “halls of the capitol” way of getting the news was largely gone.
By his count, social media removes any excuse for being uninformed.
As for Lyft and Uber in Nevada, however, Atkinson said social media wasn’t necessarily telling lawmakers anything they didn’t already know from the get-go. He had been hearing from people not only through online channels, but also from talking face-to-face with the people living in his district.
According to the lawmaker, his constituents were also calling for the ride-hailing companies to alleviate transportation woes extending beyond the neon glow of the Las Vegas Strip.
“I knew it was an issue before I went into session," Atkinson said. "I don’t think anybody went into session not knowing it was going to be an issue."
The legislator said social media makes for a great communication tool for those in his shoes, but it also requires thick skin, the ability to respond, and to be transparent and available to constituents almost instantaneously.
“In my opinion, you can’t be as social as I am and not respond,” the senator said.
For Karen North, professor of digital social media at the University of Southern California, Annenberg, the power of social media is not something any politician can afford to ignore nowadays.
From where she sits, the days of the call-your-congressman campaigns have been largely replaced by interactive, well-managed campaigns centered on the direct access granted by technology.
During her time on Capitol Hill with Rep. Edward Markey’s office in the 1990s, North said she witnessed more traditional efforts, like sending letters or the clogging phone and fax lines, but said social media seems to be forcing the hand of lawmakers in new ways when it comes to responsiveness and transparency to their constituents.
“It would be hard for me to believe that there are any elected officials these days who are not paying attention to the voices that are loud and numerous on social media. I think everybody is listening to social media. The question now becomes, how are they digesting the information that they are finding?” she said. “[Public officials] are absolutely getting more feedback probably than ever before because people are able to express themselves so easily. People don’t have to go anywhere or find an address – you can just go to your phone or your computer and reach out to your senator, congressperson or anybody else.”
The unending flow of information isn’t without its own challenges. North and Atkinson agree that striking a balance between a groundswell of public opinion and good public policy isn’t always easy.
Deciphering who is speaking for the larger group and who is “just speaking” on social media becomes a very real issue.
“What’s happened with social media is that it allows everybody to have a public platform or bully pulpit. So now if someone wants to make a rally cry like, ‘We want Lyft or Uber in Las Vegas,’ then they can spread the word …,” North said. “[A message] used to have to travel through networks of friends, but now these social media platforms that we have are basically public channels that allow people to communicate their ideas to broader audiences all at the same time.”
Whether the successes seen by Lyft and Uber would be typical of just any company is doubtful. North said the popular ride-hailing platforms have engaged their online audience at an emotional level and have created a loyal community within each brand.
As these brand grows, so too does the support for them.
While she wouldn’t go as far as to throw special interest groups to the wind for companies looking for new or softer rules, North said a powerful online backing doesn’t hurt either.
“It used to be that special interest groups or lobby groups would speak on behalf of categories of people,” the professor said. “And now, that’s still the case, but the people can speak for themselves.”