Social media anger points to real and imagined concerns among elected officials

In the summer of 2020, Livonia City Council President Kathleen McIntyre attended a large Black Lives Matter protest near Town Hall. She returned home and posted a message on her Facebook account which she said expressed support for the local police.

Then, as she describes it, “all hell broke loose.” Critics have argued that she has dismissed concerns expressed by those protesting the recent death of George Floyd.

McIntyre has seen protesters at every council meeting for months, people in restaurants giving her persistent glances while she ate lunch and people threatening to show up at her house. Livonia’s entire elected council removed their home addresses from the city’s website in response to the backtracking.

“It was really upsetting the first few days because I wasn’t used to it, but I finally had to get out of it,” McIntyre said. “To prove that you are not something is very difficult to do.

Overall, the world is a more angry place with the pandemic. Gallup’s annual Global Emotions report found that people were reporting higher levels of stress and sadness in 2020 than they had in 15 years. The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and Michigan State Police are also reporting an increase in road rage incidents.

Livonia City Council President Kathleen McIntyre in front of Town Hall on December 21, 2020.

This anger is left to flourish online. David Dulio, chair of the political science department at Oakland University, said all the good things on social media can be his downfall, too. He said both sides of the political aisle are equally guilty of using platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to distort the truth when promoting their point of view.

“There is no doubt that social media allows for less than ideal dialogue,” he said. “I don’t think there is any doubt that when people use social media they say things that they wouldn’t say if they were in front of someone. It leads to vitriol.”

McIntyre and other elected officials from Livonia and Westland say the past five years have made their meetings and interactions with the public more partisan and more personal in ways they have never seen. They all blame a combination of social media and a lack of understanding of how local law works.

“The real change I’ve seen is the result of social media,” said Jim Godbout, a longtime Westland city councilor. “There are a bunch of Keyboard Warriors who will say things, and none of that has to be true.”

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It’s not uncommon for public or council commentary to last over an hour in Westland. Residents hurl insults at council members, council members hurl abuse at each other or ask people to address social issues unrelated to city business.

This is something that Godbout, who has been on the board for over 20 years, finds totally unproductive.

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“One of the biggest things residents ask me is how I support it at every meeting,” he said. “We have had good board members in the past who decided not to run again because they were fed up.”

McIntyre and Susan Nash, Clerk of Livonia, agree that a more angry public and an emphasis on partisan leanings – the boards of directors in both cities are non-partisan offices, which means that a candidate doesn’t doesn’t have to declare his affiliation with a political party – discouraging those who might otherwise want to serve, as demonstrated this fall by a pool of seven board candidates who Nash said would normally be double the size.

Dulio agreed that a more angry public can prevent a city from accomplishing its tasks.

“It hijacks things,” Dulio said.

What criticism is justified, what is not

Westland City Councilor Jim Godbout.

Criticism is part of any elected office, and it is not lost on those elected.

“If you’ve done something wrong you can recognize it and try to get past it,” Godbout said. “Yeah, it’s no fun sitting there listening to people get up and fuck you for half an hour, but it goes with the territory. It’s part of it.”

Godbout says what isn’t fair play is a personal attack or threat, both of which he received in meetings. Others agree that comments about their personal life or something that involves their family are not justified. Personal attack is generally not allowed at a council meeting due to decorum rules, but it does happen.

However, everyone admits that the way they vote in meetings and the way they treat voters who voice their concerns are matters of criticism.

“If you think no one should talk to you about city affairs while you’re in public, then you’ve got to find another line of work,” McIntyre said.

“The point is, we deserve a closer look – I fully believe it,” added Westland Clerk Richard LeBlanc. “But, we don’t deserve all that someone might throw up as an accusation.”

                                                                                                                            Richard LeBlanc, City of Westland Clerk.

Livonia board member Rob Donovic took a different approach. The city councilor, 29, is the youngest council member Livonia has ever had and is part of a generation more accustomed to social media.

Responding to criticism, Donovic blocked some commentators and responded to others, sometimes using the same tone, on his board member Facebook page.

“Oh look, this is another enemy of the cops who dishonors the American flag and wants socialism,” Donovic wrote in response to a commentator criticizing his support for former President Donald Trump.

Donovic said social media has allowed him to communicate better with voters, but it’s also a place where he finds aggressive dialogue more prevalent.

“It can really allow you to have an open line of communication with people,” he said. “However, it’s also a place where people can attack you, people can say one-sided things and not share the whole story. I love social media, but with that comes naysayers and people. who will say mean things. “

LeBlanc, Nash, McIntyre, and Godbout all have stories of things they considered forbidden, but none have ever feared for their own safety. Livonia and Westland, however, have started reading the rules of decorum for public comment – this prohibits personal attacks and insults – in their entirety at meetings in recent years in an effort to encourage civility. Wayne recently passed changes to his public comment rules banning personal attacks – trying to reduce comments unrelated to city business.

Livonia School Board President Colleen Burton noted that she never felt comments or criticism from the public spiraled out of control during a meeting.

“Our community has always maintained order in our meetings, and I am very grateful,” she said.

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No clear path to follow

Godbout and McIntyre both say they “consider the source” when an online user makes an unflattering city government assessment. When McIntyre was criticized for her views on the police, she said she saw the reviews in person and the social media posts from different angles.

“With social media, it’s anonymity,” she said. “All you have to do is be able to type and you can throw nastiness. It’s a big deal. It’s really easy to criticize people when you don’t have to own it… At least people who came to speak to me publicly, I owned them. “

Livonie's clerk Susan Nash.

But McIntyre and others see social media, namely Facebook, as a problem they will have to continue to grapple with as information and misinformation circulate rapidly online.

Nash even asked a group of residents to file a request for nearly $ 9,000 under the Freedom of Information Act so that they could examine how the city is organizing the elections after the November 2020 election. theories and false claims regarding election results were rife on local and national social media pages.

“I think social media has made getting elected a lot harder than ever before,” said LeBlanc. “I’ve been elected several times – I was elected before email existed. I think the anonymity of social media and to some extent email has proven to be a challenge. People can say things, they can imply that they are going to do things. “

They say the problem is, people forget that the person behind an email or social media exchange is another human being, too.

“I think what gets lost in so much is empathy,” McIntyre said. “Try for a second to think of the person on the other end of a phone call or conversation.”

Contact reporter Shelby Tankersley at [email protected] or 248-305-0448. Follow her on Twitter @shelby_tankk.

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