By Mike McNees, City Manager, City of Marco Island
50 Bald Eagle Drive
Marco Island, FL 34145
I recently had conversations with two residents who had become quite agitated for different reasons, but both based on intentionally propagated misinformation. The other commonality was how those conversations ended; The first said “it’s just so hard to know who to believe any more”, and the second closed with “it’s just so much harder these days to separate the truth from the noise!”
The second statement rolled around in my head for about thirty minutes, before I saw it for the nonsense it represents and the message it sends about the state of today’s public engagement, especially on the national level. I counter with this question – is it truly harder today to recognize the truth than it was in the “good old days”, or have we just collectively gotten too intellectually lazy to bother to find out?
Electrical engineers measure something called the “signal to noise” ratio. Notated as “S/N” this measures the strength of an electrical or other signal that carries information (think of a radio broadcast) versus the level of interference. If only we had an S/N filter through which we could pass the news broadcasts and speeches we hear, and most definitely the social media deluge that so many people use as their sole “news” source.
The good news is that there is such a tool, and as public administrators we use it every day. The S/N filter is critical thinking, an essential skill that is more essential now than ever. Can we analyze available information objectively, and come to reasonable conclusions, and can we help our constituents do the same? Much has been written about how the social media stream by its very nature erodes critical thinking skills. But how can we help when it often feels like we are trying to hold back the tide? I offer a few thoughts:
- Identify Objective Truth; it does exist – We must be willing to stand up for what is demonstrably true, despite our world of Alternative Facts. I cannot think of a better example than a Manager explaining to a skeptical City Council member why City Hall employees are being required to wear masks based on the science vs. the politics of mask wearing, and our responsibility to the employees. We also must commit to doing the research required to identify that objective truth.
- Be in the Arena – Nearly every City and County has some social media presence, and it is simple arithmetic that the S/N ratio goes up when you are putting more signal out there. Constant and consistent messaging, through social media, traditional press contacts, and through public meetings is an imperative. This an old school fundamental, but we can apply it creatively with existing technologies. We have also had some success in going directly to “original posters” of incorrect or false information and making them our ally in getting the truth out.
- Bring Opposing Parties Together – Our current dynamics make the need for public engagement greater than ever, at a time when we are also more constrained than ever. That means expanding our toolboxes. In the small city of Marco Island more than 400 people signed up for a public workshop on vacation rentals on the Zoom platform, and even more watched on television. We had been buried in an avalanche of communication on one side of the issue, and what we learned was that there were many more people than we imagined with differing points of view. Most importantly, those sides had the opportunity to hear each other, which is what is being lost with social media. That is more signal.
- Maintain Your Credibility – As public administrators our credibility is our stock in trade. At the same time, as illustrated at the opening of this column, our constituents are almost desperate to know who to believe. Let that be you, with openness, honesty, and the courage of your commitment to the greater good. They will thank you for it, and in fact in the cases I mentioned above the gentlemen both did exactly that to me.
It is a very interesting new world, and our task in separating the information from the noise is not getting easier. The challenge however is unmistakable, and I doubt very many of you were looking for an easy job when you signed on. Log in and buckle up, it should continue to be an exciting ride.