Searching for the Truth: A Visit from the Maryland Senators

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On Wednesday, September 14th, the Center for the Study of Democracy hosted two Maryland Senators in Cole Cinema to engage in an open forum on social media and its contributions to political campaigns. Dr. Leticia Bode, Assistant Professor in the Communications, Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University, opened the evening with a presentation on “Social Media and Elections: A Changing Landscape.”

“[Social media] is one tool in a broader toolkit,” Dr. Bode remarked, speaking to what she referred to as the “amplification effect” in which social media is used to swing undecided voters.

Unsurprisingly, social media has become an increasingly popular source of political information, especially among the Millennials of whom 61 percent get their political news from Facebook compared to only 39 percent of the Baby Boomer generation.

At about this point in the presentation, Democratic Senator Cheryl Kagan of Montgomery County and Republican Senator Steve Waugh of Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties arrived, fashionably late, a whirlwind of toothy smiles and sparkly eyes.

Dr. Bode went on to identify Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter as being the “Big Three” sources of political truth with Snapchat, Reddit, and Instagram rising up the ranks of popularity. Generally, Dr. Bode explained, politicians do not like using Snapchat, because it cannot be edited. After each app was named, audience members were asked to raise their hands if they had the app. An overwhelming majority raised their hands for Instagram.

“OK, I’m getting an Instagram account!” interjected Senator Waugh, throwing his hands into the air.

The end of Dr. Bode’s presentation marked a transition into the second part of the evening, a discussion of pressing issues in this year’s presidential election.

After a pause, Senator Kagan jumped in, bright-eyed and with intense earnestness: “I would like to say #I’mWithHer.” From there, she launched into her account of how she got involved in politics, how she tried her first oyster when visiting St. Mary’s County, why she supports Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and why Clinton is the most qualified presidential candidate. “I don’t understand why it’s not a clear election,” she concluded simply.

Senator Waugh took a more buttery approach to introducing his platform: “This [college] is a gem in the crown of the state.” The audience then learned that he is from a big Irish-Catholic family, has 35 cousins, and is “probably the biggest geek in the Senate.” After this lengthy preamble, Senator Waugh quickly endorsed Trump and then sat back down for the Q&A session.

Neither candidate addressed political issues in their introductions.

The central topic of the subsequent Q&A session was the cost of higher education. Both senators agreed that the focus needed to be on students’ performance in elementary through high school. Senator Waugh pressed the issue further, arguing that “Most people don’t go to college, so even if we make it free, it will be a lot of people paying for a small population. If you say [higher education] is free, people will major in basket-weaving and slack off because it’s easy.” He then said that people “need to know” what they are studying and slipped in a derisive remark about majoring in French.

A cluster of French majors and their professor seated in the back of the theater glanced at each other with wide eyes.

Dr. George MacLeod, Assistant Professor of French, raised his hand and was passed the microphone: “Hi, I’m a Professor of French here at St. Mary’s, and I was wondering if you could explain what you meant by ‘you need to know’? And why did you pick French and not Spanish or Russian?”

Senator Waugh flustered.

Senator Kagan came to his aid. “I think I need to cover my friend’s tush here…”

“What can I say? I’m an engineer,” laughed Senator Waugh. “I deserve the tomato.”

One lady in the audience asked what sources people should go to for “the truth.” The senators responded in a vague flurry, after which the lady who initially posed the question said, “But—I still feel like you didn’t answer my question.”

Student Zeid Chleuh was the last audience member to speak for the evening: “Hi, I’m also a French major—”

Everyone laughed.

Chleuh continued, “—but I won’t bother you about that. Largely because of social media, it’s not hard to have opinions or to vent them upon the Internet. It’s not difficult to point out the glaring vacuum of character in one or both candidates, or to wonder aloud at how rigged and futile our political system can seem, or to denounce the views of those least like you. None of that is difficult…The hard part is listening. Would you set the example today and point out some positives about the opposing candidate?”

Senator Kagan grimaced. “Can I be a ninny and say something about the Republican Party? Would that disappoint you?”

“Yes it would,” insisted Chleuh. “I want you to say something nice about Trump.”

Senator Kagan looked down into her folded hands. “While I almost never agree with him,” she said carefully, “I appreciate his frankness. I think we actually got a window into his soul.”

Senator Waugh gave his response with similar reticence. “[Hillary Clinton] has been around a long time, and we need people who have been around a long time.”

***

After the event, Professor MacLeod remarked, “I share the increasingly widespread view that social media, along with other factors such as 24-hour media coverage, is contributing to the polarization of politics and putting increasing pressure on politicians to gain visibility through soundbites and inflammatory rhetoric.” He added, “At the same time, there’s no point in denying that social media’s outsized role has become a permanent part of our cultural landscape. Going forward, I see that kind of informed, nuanced literacy of social media’s role in politics as a skill that a liberal arts education is uniquely equipped to address.”

Student Ambassador Maddie Roth, from the Center for the Study of Democracy, shared this recognition of social media’s increasing importance: “I see social media becoming a more integral part of campaigns since it’s our generation that makes the most use out of social media, and we’re the ones that are going forward and shaping the future of politics. This connectivity and closeness will only harbor a renewed sense of democracy.”

When asked about the senators’ response to his question, Chleuh replied that he was pleased that the senators responded honestly. “One of these candidates will be elected, and we need to have an understanding on what they bring to the table,” he said. “Both senators answered my question and it was truly refreshing to hear them talk about something they never talk about. I hope that many others were challenged and will start doing the same.”

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