'Harsh' social media a deterrent to potential politicians

1:24 pm on 22 July 2019

The wrath of social media might put off people from standing for council, local government leaders say.

Man using smartphone in bed late, in the middle of the night. Mobile phone in bedroom. Texting or using social media. Cellphone addiction.

Photo: 123rf

Some senior councillors, including a few bowing out this year, said online trolls were making the job tougher.

The head of Local Government New Zealand, Dave Cull, said dealing with a feisty public forum was one thing, but social media was leading to increasingly personal attacks on elected officials.

"[It's] a bit like getting behind the wheel of a car for some people: It just seems to embolden them and to throw off any scruples they might have had about being respectful."

Moves are afoot in Britain to crack down on extreme abuse levelled at politicians.

British media reported last year on plans to legislate against threatening or abusive behaviour either in person or online, towards candidates or campaigners working for them.

Tasman mayor Richard Kempthorne said it was now a talking point within New Zealand local government circles, and he suspected it was putting off some standing for election.

"At election time, certainly very negative social media activities take place and it can be really quite harsh.

"Everybody in local government and particularly at mayoral level is aware that social media has become increasingly unhealthy."

Mr Kempthorne was standing down this year after 12 years in the job. In that time he has noticed the level of abuse getting worse.

He said Facebook, Instagram, Twitter had given rise to a what he described as "toxic people on social media".

Mr Cull said criticism was part and parcel of public life, but there should be limits.

"If you didn't allow it you wouldn't have a functioning democracy, but I think that too often it's playing the man and not the ball.

"We need to stick to issues."

Marlborough District councillor Cynthia Brooks, who was stepping down this year after two terms, said a lot of criticism stemmed from a lack of awareness.

It was especially noticeable every time there was a story on councillor attendances at meetings.

"I've analysed this because I've been helping a potential candidate understand what it is he might be in for, and I quantified that that part of the work [council meetings] was probably about a third of the entire workload, if that," Ms Brooks said.

More experienced officials had found their own ways of dealing with the abuse: Mr Kempthorne said he did not have Facebook.

Teenager Rohan O'Neill-Stevens hopes to be elected to the Nelson City Council this year.

"Having grown up in the social media generation means you come to appreciate that people will happily say anything when they can feel divorced from their actions," he said.

"Having that understanding makes it easier to cope with online criticism."

He said blocking was a good but potentially flawed way to compact it.

"You might end up blocking someone who was coming from a place of genuine interest, even if they phrased it in a particularly bad way.

"But I would say go with what's comfortable. Don't allow things to remain on your page if they're making you feel uncomfortable."

Voting papers will start arriving at households from 20 September for the 12 October elections.

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