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How local elected officials navigate experiences of hostility on social media

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

"Civility on social media is almost non-existent.” - Elected official in a large township in Illinois

Social media is an easy and quick way that local elected officials are able to interact with their constituents, updating them on events in the area, new legislation, and when elections are happening. In turn, constituents can more easily engage with their elected officials without having to rely on scheduling meetings or attending public events. However, this increased accessibility also offers new ways in which elected officials are being verbally insulted, harassed, or worse. This problem is pervasive. In recent research with the Bridging Divides Initiate (BDI), we documented how about a third of local elected officials experienced harassment within a three-month period. In our most recent survey, conducted in collaboration with Dr. Anne Rasmussen and Dr. Gregory Eady, we wanted to unpack how many of these hostile experiences are occurring on social media, in particular.


We found that hostile experiences are occurring much more frequently through social media than through all other modalities combined. For example, 20% of respondents reported experiencing hostility at least once a week on social media, compared with 10% through other modalities. There were even 7% of respondents who reported experiencing hostility more than once a day on social media, compared with 3% of respondents through other modalities.



Hostile interactions on social media can interfere with local officials’ ability to effectively do their jobs. “Threatening [comments make] it much harder to do the people's business”, said one elected official in a large municipality in Illinois. Some officials have even gone so far as to not use social media for political purposes at all to avoid hostile attacks. “After an unpleasant exchange on Facebook”, one elected official in a large municipality in Georgia told us, they now only use “email and direct phone calls to engage with constituents.”


Some elected officials have even questioned whether or not they want to continue serving due to the negative experiences they’ve faced online. Politics is known to be a thankless job, but with social media making it easier to harass elected officials, some are feeling overwhelmed. One elected official in a small township in Michigan said it is “Very difficult to try and serve when constantly being belittled about decisions.”


And these are not mere anecdotes. When asked if being exposed to disrespectful messages on social media is a major downside to being an elected official, both sides of the aisle were very likely to agree that this statement is true (Democrats were 95% likely and Republicans were 89% likely).



And yet, elected officials also recognize that freedom of expression, even if it is disrespectful, is a protected pillar of American values. For example, majorities in both parties did not support government action to restrict harmful discourse on social media. In their comments at the end of the survey, elected officials—even ones who had directly experienced hostility—celebrated the importance of freedom of speech. An elected official in mid-sized township in Missouri put it simply, “Government regulation of speech, no matter how uncomfortable, should not be attempted.”



But not all speech is protected—particularly when it amounts to a credible threat of violence or hate speech. Officials are acutely aware of the existence of this line. As one elected official in a mid-sized municipality in Texas said to us, “Saying I am a jerk is first amendment, saying ‘wait to see you in the parking lot’ should have options for response.”

“Saying I am a jerk is first amendment, saying 'wait to see you in the parking lot' should have options for response.” - Elected official in a mid-sized municipality in Texas

And yet, notwithstanding these often harrowing experiences, what is remarkable is that many officials continue to convey compassion for even hostile constituents. One elected official in a mid-sized Kentucky municipality remarked, “Listen... there may be truth in what you have heard... constituents just want to vent.”


The legal difference between ‘venting’ and threatening will likely be a topic that regulators and tech companies will have to navigate for some time to come. But in the meantime, local elected officials on the frontline of democracies will continue to navigate these issues with resilience and poise.


Survey Background

The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random-sampled survey of local government policymakers. Responses were collected between September 7 and October 19, 2022.


The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Dr. Anne Rasmussen and Dr. Gregory Eady and implemented by the CivicPulse Team.  


Below are the key survey items used to generate the results:  


How often do you personally face disrespectful or hateful comments on social media?

  • Several times a day

  • About once a day

  • 3 to 6 days a week

  • 1 to 2 days a week

  • Every few weeks

  • Less often

  • Never

How often do you personally face disrespectful or hateful comments outside of social media (e.g. email, physical mail, face-to-face)?

  • Several times a day

  • About once a day

  • 3 to 6 days a week

  • 1 to 2 days a week

  • Every few weeks

  • Less often

  • Never

To what extent do you agree or disagree that stronger government action should be taken to restrict disrespect discourse on social media?

  • Strongly agree

  • Somewhat agree

  • Slightly agree

  • Slightly disagree

  • Somewhat disagree

  • Strongly disagree

To what extent do you agree or disagree that being exposed to disrespectful messages on social media is a major downside to being a politician?

  • Strongly agree

  • Somewhat agree

  • Slightly agree

  • Slightly disagree

  • Somewhat disagree

  • Strongly disagree

Media Contact

Nathan Lee, PhD

Managing Director of CivicPulse

(618) 319-3404

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