Public comments before social media comments

Sonoma has plenty of opinions — this cannot be denied.

They range from something as small as an ice cream shop that wants to paint its front door pink, to something as big as the Rosewood Hotel that sought to reshape the view from the Plaza. It’s the sign of an engaged and connected community, one that cares deeply about every little change that happens in our vivacious Valley.

Sometimes those opinions are thoughtfully and purposefully expressed, giving insight and background to promote a healthy discussion on the issue. Others read like sniper attacks, intent on enflaming and dividing readers. Social media seems to be a hotbed for the latter, drawing the type of emotionally-driven comments that hit like a grenade, aimed at causing collateral damage.

We see hundreds of comments every week on our social media channels — the good, the bad and the banal. Then there are the hundreds of comments on local issues posted to Nextdoor, Facebook groups and Twitter. While some come from the same people again and again, these threads have many voices sharing their individual views.

As a news organization, we believe deeply in free speech and the First Amendment. Even when that speech is ugly and the antithesis of the type of discourse we hope to foster. Limiting viewpoints isn’t part of our purview — we follow the common practices of our industry by filtering out comments with dirty words or emojis, along with those that spread blatant misinformation or dangerous conspiracy theories. We pay attention, not just to moderate abusive language, but to keep an eye out for commonalities and trends.

Take the debate over the changes planned on Broadway, which come September is expected to shrink the roadway down to three lanes as it nears the Plaza, with parking lanes sandwiched between the street and newly established protected bike lanes. If the comments online are reflective of general public opinion (which is clearly debatable), the proposed change was almost universally disliked.

“Unbelievable! The people in this town already said they didn’t want to see a change! Traffic is going to impossible to navigate in this town when school is back in session,” Kristine Lely posted on the I-T story on Facebook. It was one of more than 100 similar sentiments shared on that post.

Before that vote took place, the City sought feedback from residents, laying out the three possible options in front of the City Council. The I-T shared this news July 30, giving people a chance to have their say on the matter before the council voted on this issue on Aug. 2. That story garnered 37 comments on Facebook, almost all of them calling for the council to “leave Broadway alone.”

Only a handful of people took part in the official public comment held at the meeting, where they expressed opinions for and against the addition of bike lanes on Broadway. That’s to be expected, as not everyone has time to show up or Zoom into a council meeting to comment.

Most people waited until after it was all over to share their thoughts. Before the vote, councilmembers said they got a fewer than 25 emails about the issue, but after it was a done deal, the emails poured in by the dozens. There’s no way to know if public influence would have swayed the council’s vote on Broadway, but one would hope that any elected officials is listening intently to constituent concerns.

Although, it must be noted, a prior council disregarded its own public survey about Broadway, ignoring pleas to “leave it alone” in favor of building bike lanes. But in the face of swift public backlash, that council quickly reversed course.

It would be interesting to see what happened if the thousands of social media comments made each month were also emailed to civic leaders. Would the will of the people be better reflected in the decisions of our elected officials? Perhaps it would just invite a different chorus of voices, with their own sets of opinions.

There’s only one way to find out.

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