Yes, social media has given us kitten videos, Chewbacca Mom and an unhealthy infatuation with the Kardashians.
But it also helped mobilize the Arab Spring, allowing protestors to organize within and communicate without against the wishes of oppressive governments. It can put us in the middle of events in Bangor or Bangkok, in real time, through nothing more than a cheap phone and an internet connection.
And this powerful tool can make institutions like the Maine Legislature more open and accessible, if only lawmakers can get past the cat videos.
At the request of Rep. Matt Pouliot, an Augusta Republican, the House Rules Committee last week discussed removing a longstanding ban on lawmakers taking photos or video during public legislative sessions. If it were repealed, lawmakers could broadcast legislative debate straight from the floor to constituents using programs like Facebook Live.
But the tepid response shows just how hard it is to get plodding institutions to adopt technology already widely in use elsewhere. It’s the same stodgy adherence to old notions of decorum that keeps courtroom sketch artists employed in 2017.
Rep. John Martin, the 75-year-old long-serving Democrat from Eagle Lake and member of the Rules Committee, said allowing lawmakers to video would “create more problems” than it solves and that if he had his way, “there would be no Facebook and no accounts out there.”
“Society would be a lot better off if they read the newspapers and watched the news,” he said.
Martin may think of Facebook as a mire of silly videos, offensive memes and celebrity news. He wouldn’t be alone if he did.
But it is also the portal through which most Americans receive their news from legitimate news organizations. And while its immediacy and lack of face-to-face contact can lead to reductive, even dehumanizing posts, it can also — depending on the user — foster transparency and the free flow of information and ideas.
It is a tool for disseminating information, good and bad, and it is up to the user to discern one from the other. Blaming Facebook for people’s misbehavior is a little like blaming the printing press for “Mein Kampf.”
Martin’s comments are not an argument for banning lawmakers from using Facebook Live and other social media programs during legislative debates. Instead, they are an argument for creating an atmosphere in which legislators can use the new technology in a way consistent with the traditions of the State House. That shouldn’t be so much of a concern as to keep lawmakers from using tools as they are developed to bring the Legislature closer to the people it represents.
Sure, legislative sessions are now streamed online. But apps like Facebook Live can be used to capture shorter sections of those dialogues — ones that are quicker to the point, more easily digestible and conveniently shared on the platforms most used by Mainers.
Augusta was made the capital in part because of its central location — it gave Mainers from all over the state a fair chance of getting to the capital, back when that journey required a horse or two.
Now we have the technology to bring the state’s work into the homes and onto the phones of Maine residents wherever they are, and while new technology always brings with it new challenges, we feel confident the Legislature can meet those challenges, and balance the job of doing the people’s work with showing their work to the people.