News Column

Social Media Plays Key Role in New Mexico Legislature

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Social media's ever-increasing role in worldwide public discourse played out in a major way during this year's session of the New Mexico Legislature.

Even though the 60-day session ended Saturday, Twitter and Facebook are still jammed with references to #nmleg, the hashtag that helped people track happenings at the Capitol.

Pundits credit social media with engaging a broader audience in the sometimes obscure sausage-making of how a bill becomes law -- or in the case of numerous popular efforts this session, how it dies. They also say exchanges via social media had a significant role in helping organize rallies, getting people to testify at committee hearings and even persuading legislators to take certain actions.

Take House Bill 77, for example. The measure to impose background checks on all firearms buyers at gun shows had made it through the House, but Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, hadn't put it on the Senate Judiciary Committee's agenda for a hearing and was rumored to have told a constituent he wouldn't put it on the agenda. While this might have spelled a quiet death for the legislation, organizing and news reports referenced in social media turned up the heat.

Martinez put the matter on his committee's list the next day. The bill -- one that had bipartisan support and that the governor said she would sign -- eventually died in the last minutes of the Senate floor session during a Republican filibuster.

But Pat Davis, director of Progress Now NM, said the take-away lesson is that people took action. Hundreds of calls to Martinez' office happened because of connectivity through email and social media websites, he said. Likewise, when the liberal nonprofit tweeted a House member's cellphone number to invite calls about his stance on immigrant driver's licenses, the lawmaker complained that he got so many calls he couldn't use his phone that day.

"Everybody is watching social media now," said Davis. "They are sneaking away to check their Facebook page or watching social media when they should be doing something else at work. It is, as near as we can tell, the way to find the most people and get them to do something quickly."

Traffic monitor functions on Facebook allow the organization to figure out what issues are most important to people, he said.

"For example, when we were tweeting and posting about the gay marriage vote, we could see the shares and views really spiked," he said. "Normally when we post something, we had 100 people who were seeing it, but when we did the gay marriage thing we had 2,000 people who saw those posts within just the first few minutes."

Reporters for The New Mexican and other news outlets used social media to quickly get out the word about votes or updates on other happenings at the Roundhouse before filing longer stories or adding to blogs.

Independent journalist Matthew Reichbach was one of the most prolific social-media posters at the Roundhouse. Because he was able to make quick posts to the online New Mexico Telegram, he was often an early source of more explanation that just the 120 characters in an initial tweet.

Reichbach said in an interview Monday that this session saw more social media action than any of the previous four sessions he's covered, including during his time at the now-defunct New Mexico Independent online news site. But like any other tool, he said, its effectiveness really depends on the user.

"Nothing beats on-the-ground reporting, just being the person at that meeting reporting on what they are saying," he said. "Social media has definitely become a way that you can do that instantaneously. There are all these anecdotes that may not fit into a story, but people are interested in hearing about them."

Past sessions, he said, featured lots of tweets from people who were observing the session. Now, he said, tweets more often are coming from advocates, organizations and agencies.

While the individuals and organizations with the most social media contact seem to be on the political left, they no longer hold a monopoly on the tools. GOP Twitter handles and those from more conservative perspectives in New Mexico generally have fewer followers and make fewer posts -- @GOPHouse last made a post Feb. 5 -- but they are present.

Among examples of regular users are former Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell, who is now an administrator for the Secretary of State's Office and who challenged journalists and Democrats with a confrontational style on Twitter.

Rob Nikolewski, who produces New Mexico Capitol Report, said he gets classified on the right side of the political spectrum but really considers himself a libertarian. He said it's true that people on the left side of the political spectrum in New Mexico historically have been more active on social media but the right is likely to catch up.

"I was a little reluctant at first but I was sort of told 'do it and that it would help your site,' which was true," he said, "So I imagine that anybody -- left, center, right -- if they are starting something or they've got any kind of media presence, they are begin told from on high 'Use this stuff. Use the social media to get your stuff out.' I think it's almost universal now."

In the Senate Republican press office, Diane Kinderwater said the focus was on a new website, as well as Facebook and YouTube. Rather than connecting with constituents, she said, those tools have mostly been for outreach to media outlets that aren't reporting from Santa Fe.

"We updated our press releases on Facebook and provided digital interviews that we posted on YouTube," she said, noting that radio stations in the rural reaches of the state often used content for on-air soundbites.

"It's not always what you put out," said JD Gins, who worked during the session as a spokesman for House Democrats and tried to juggle a presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for his bosses. "You can also use Twitter as a barometer for what reactions are happening to different announcements or to things passing."

Individual lawmakers got in on the action, with House Majority Whip Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, often sending tweets during floor sessions and committee hearings. Others said they used social media to keep tabs on committees in other rooms while sitting in hearings of their own. Riechbach noted that using social media is a way for lawmakers to directly communicate without the filter of traditional news media reporting.

"They can just tweet exactly what they want to say and everybody sees it," he said. "I think a lot of people in power like that."

Gins said that's likely to become more common here, as it already is in other states where he's worked.

"You can't really have a press shop or you are not really fully communicating with your constituents or with the press in general if you don't exercise in that arena," he said.

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