JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Last weekend the liberal political blog and website, ThinkProgress, ran a headline targeting a Missouri lawmaker. It read, “New Missouri Bill Would Permit Christian College Groups to Discriminate Against Gay Students.”
The bill is Missouri HB 104, and the lawmaker is Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Republican from Springfield. Haahr, who is a frequent user of both Facebook and Twitter in the growing number of young, tech-savvy elected officials, was inundated in hours.
“Email, Facebook, Twitter, you name it,” Haahr said. “It can happen really quickly.”
Haahr then decided to employ a tactic many elected officials in Missouri haven’t attempted. He took to Twitter and Facebook and began re-posting the ugliest of the messages he was receiving in an effort to show ordinary citizens just how bitter and personal politics could become.
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“I firmly believe that logical debate and philosophical discussion leads to better legislation and better decisions,” Haahr said. “A lot of people don’t engage in social media because they don’t understand it or because they have a consultant or someone telling them to only talk in the most scripted environments possible. But if you believe in certain principles and you can articulate them, why not lay those out?”
Haahr’s bill will no doubt be the focus of a lengthy debate in the Missouri House, but the purely viscous messages he received and subsequently shared with his social media followers even earned condemnation from those on the opposite side of the issue. Haahr saw angry messages posted on photos of his children, sometimes directed at his family, and at least one individual welcomed Haahr’s beheading by ISIS.
Haahr’s experience is hardly the first example of a Missouri politician suffering a swift and public backlash on social media that can take a particularly ugly tone. Nearly any politician with a vocal presence on Twitter or Facebook will eventually elicit critics. Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, D-Kansas City, has had his own ugly run-ins, many times on Twitter.
“The first few times it happened, I remember my temperature rising more,” LaFaver said. “After a while, I just sort of, it comes with the territory. You learn how to deal with it or use it to your advantage.”
LaFaver experienced a similar fire-hose of angry Tweets after trading words with fiery conservative radio host, Dana Loesch. On more than one occasion, Loesch’s more than 250,000 followers have leapt to her side in online debates. But the silver lining to the sometimes very dark cloud of anonymous online debate for officials like LaFaver is that the incidents undoubtedly do raise your profile.
“There’s something to be said for engaging with someone and then people on both sides see that debate and the people that do agree with you are going to now follow you as well,” LaFave said. “Any time I’ve gotten into it with someone like [Loesch] I always end with more followers than I had. And aren’t followers the currency of Twitter?”
LaFaver’s approach tended, like many politicians, toward ignoring the ugliest of online commenters. Haahr subscribed to a similar philosophy until the most recent wave, when he decided that “shining a light” on the worst-of-the-worst might encourage kinder, gentler, and more intelligent debate. They’ve both admit they’ve had plenty of productive of interactions on social media as well, sometimes in the form of respectful debate.
LaFaver, 35, and Haahr, 32, come from a newer generation of elected officials for whom social media is proving vastly important. But as social media grows, so does the potential for truly disturbing bitterness. While they’ve both begun to develop a thick skin, each man admits that the meanest of trolls have distressed the loved ones around them. And as two young fathers with multiple children — Haahr has 4 children, LaFaver, 2 — the concern about what their kids might one day read becomes very real.
It comes with the job.
“You will get trolled, you will, that’s the first thing,” Haahr said. “You can’t let it get to you. If you don’t let it get to you, though, it will still be very harder on your loved ones. Both sides have their crazy stuff, let’s shine a light on them and make them run back to their troll holes and leave us alone and learn that you can have a debate, but that what they’re doing is not acceptable in today’s society.”
LaFaver, for his part, offered more brief advice.
“Turn off your Twitter account at 10pm every night.”
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.