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What role is social media playing in decisions

Natchez is not Cairo or Tunis, and our little corner of the world hardly resembles Libya, Yemen and Bahrain where Facebook messages and Twitter posts were influential in toppling whole governments. The same forces, albeit at a much smaller scale, may be at play with local efforts to oust the current school board and school superintendent.

Social media has made the job of the city alderman and the county supervisor more difficult than it was 20 years ago. Before the age of Facebook and Twitter, most citizens were left to complain about their local government at the barber shop or diner.

As the current controversy over the school district’s decisions to let go teachers and administrators heats up, social media has been added to the arsenal of the school board’s critics. Many of the former teachers and administrators who have publicly expressed their displeasure over recent firings have also used Facebook as another avenue to broadcast their opinion.

Former Natchez High School assistant principal Shannon Doughty, who recently addressed her concerns to the Adams County Board of Supervisors, has effectively used Facebook as a tool for offering her vision for what the school district should be. To her credit, her posts have not devolved into name calling and board bashing, but they clearly express frustration with the current system. With more than 2,000 friends, Doughty’s voice is much louder on Facebook than it is standing in a nearly empty school board room.

Doubtless, Doughty is not the only person with an inside view of the school district who is expressing her frustration online.

Meanwhile, elected leaders are watching the conversation from their computer screens. County supervisor Mike Lazarus said as much in a recent meeting when he admitted that he keeps up with what people are saying through his wife’s Facebook account.

Online conversations amplified by the way social media works to connect friends and like-minded folk, have created a false sense of urgency, which may explain the city’s hasty actions Tuesday evening.

Without prior research by the city attorney, Alderman Rick Gray made the motion to oust three school board members based on his opinion that the board had violated state laws. In order to garner enough votes, Gray agreed to amend his motion to require legal review before any action was taken.

Wednesday, city attorney Hyde Carby responded with a memo citing previous opinions from the attorney general in similar cases that the board had no basis for removal of the school board members.

Thankfully, government moves at a slower pace than the whirlwinds whipped up on Facebook. The system of checks and balances allows for decisions based on research and reasoned thought instead of emotions and reactionary thinking. The state’s separation of powers prevents the legislative branch — the aldermen — from getting involved in the business of the executive branch — the school board. It is the same separation of powers on which our federal government was founded.

This does not mean that those who have found a voice on social media should not have an influence on what happens in the school district. Their voices should be heard and taken to account. But their voices should also be supported by evidence instead of opinion.

That is what our representative democracy is about — the same democracy many people in Egypt, Libya and other Middle East countries promoted on social media during the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011.

We should value our system as much as those who fight just to have it.


Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat .com.