Staying social: Public officials take different strategies to social media

An argument on Nextdoor led some residents to ask Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg to recuse himself from voting on a rezoning plan. (Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith) An argument on Nextdoor led some residents to ask Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg to recuse himself from voting on a rezoning plan. (Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith)

When Rory Stolzenberg accepted an appointment to the Charlottesville Planning Commission last October, he hoped to play a role in how the city government shapes its citizens’ way of life. What he didn’t expect is just how much weight his words would now carry online.

The 27-year-old software developer has an active presence on social media—most notably on Twitter and the neighborhood-based platform Nextdoor—and drew the ire of some local residents after engaging in arguments online.

In a June 11 letter to the Planning Commission, a group of 28 Belmont residents asked that Stolzenberg recuse himself from an upcoming vote, citing his comments on social media about the issue, a proposed rezoning plan for affordable housing units at Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church. Stolzenberg’s comments were “denigrating and filled with sarcasm to neighbors,” the residents complained.

Although the letter (which also requested that Commissioner Gary Heaton recuse himself because he’s a Methodist minister) wasn’t addressed at the meeting, where the Hinton Church proposal was approved in a unanimous vote, it raises the question of where public officials  should draw the line in their online comments.

As a general rule, Stolzenberg says he doesn’t comment on pending applications, but will enter online discussions about them when he believes others are missing or ignoring critical facts. He says he tries to be factual and base his opinions on evidence. “Certainly, there’s times, especially on [Nextdoor], where the quality of the conversation overall has kind of regressed,” he says. “Often there are insults being lobbed at me, or renters.”

In the sometimes-heated thread on Nextdoor about Hinton Avenue, Stolzenberg responded to the rezoning concerns with a photo of a well-kept multi-family home on Belmont Avenue and wrote “SICK FOURPLEX absolutely DESTROYS neighborhood character! Who will save us from this CREEPING THREAT?!”

In the ensuing exchange, Kimber Hawkey, one of the letter’s co-signers and a Belmont resident, accused the commissioner of having “blatantly called out and challenged residents who would dare to speak out against this project.”

Hawkey declined to comment for this story, saying “the documents speak for themselves.”

Kevin Driscoll, an assistant professor in media studies at UVA with a background in political communication, says too little is known about the effects of social media on local politics. But his hope is that local officials use social media to gauge public opinion in a productive way.

“I think there’s a need for public officials to step out and define what leadership looks like in a social media environment,” Driscoll says. “The trick for folks going forward—especially at a local level—is to create the feeling of localness within these massive platforms.”

Stolzenberg is by no means the only public official in Charlottesville to communicate on social media. His fellow Planning Commission member Lyle Solla-Yates is also vocal on Twitter, and all five members of City Council have active profiles on various social media platforms. Mayor Nikuyah Walker, in particular, uses Facebook to communicate with constituents, highlight projects, and vent frustrations. Many of the posts on her personal page center around race, including a photo she shared Thursday that said, “Black women are stereotyped as angry but have you ever told an old white man he couldn’t have something[?]”

Walker drew criticism last July after protesting a candidate for interim city manager on Facebook Live. Her comments played into Sidney C. Zemp’s decision to turn down the offer, citing in a letter that he “would be unable to serve the public needs, instead being mired in petty fights and paralysis.” Walker declined to comment for this story.

According to City Attorney John C. Blair, there’s no state or city policy that restricts how local elected representatives use their social media accounts. The only thing they’re not allowed to do is block users. A case involving a Loudoun County official reached a federal appeals court in January, stipulating that even temporarily blocking an account is a violation of that person’s First Amendment rights.

“If a city council member had a question, they would contact our office and we’d talk about how the law stands [on social media] at that time,” Blair says.

Councilor Wes Bellamy, who came under fire in 2016 for offensive tweets from his early 20s that resurfaced courtesy of Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, says he thinks it’s important to post his opinions online to keep people informed, but he doesn’t have to engage with everyone who disagrees with him.

Developing thick skin helps, and “understanding that just because somebody has an opinion doesn’t mean that I have to respond to it or validate something that I know is just completely ridiculous,” Bellamy says.

The reality of local politics in the 21st century is that a significant base of constituents relies on social media for its news and political commentary. So whether or not public officials engaging in arguments is helpful in the long run, most tend to agree it’s important to use social media to inform citizens and initiate important dialogues.

“I think there is a role for public debate on social media, like for important issues that we’re discussing … so that people can see them,” Stolzenberg says. “If we have more discussions about topics publicly, it gives a window into important considerations that we’re discussing on either side.”