On Thursday, August 21, over 200 people piled into Oakland’s City Hall to listen to 12 mayoral candidates answer questions from residents, who submitted questions to Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #oakmtg.
The Live Forum was split into two parts, the first half consisting of questions that had been previously selected, and the second half of questions that were submitted live throughout the forum, both online and by those in City Hall.
Over the course of two and a half hours, candidates answered questions regarding how the mayor should deal with gentrification, create job stability in Oakland, how to ensure trust between the community and those in power, and how to promote transparency in City Hall, among others.
But what made this forum unique was not necessarily how the questions were answered, it was how the questions were selected, using the #oakmtg hashtag. According to a press release by Tonya Love, Thursday’s live forum marks the first time that social media has been used as “an integral part of a forum or debate for mayoral election.”
Twitter has been used to raise awareness about important social issues by activists around the world, from the 2011 Arab Spring to the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. But by organizing an event where candidates sitting at City Hall answered questions from residents on Facebook and Twitter who may have been unable to attend the forum for a variety of reasons, #oakmtg took social media participation to the next level.
The hashtag was started in 2007 by Echa Schneider, and has grown in popularity in recent years. Oakland resident and health and policy advocate Tonya Love has been actively using the hashtag since 2010, when she wanted a way to raise awareness about the 2010 mayoral election. This year, she worked with around 9 other volunteers to organize the first #oakmtg Live Forum.
For Love, the hashtag provides an outlet to spread information without being as time-consuming as operating a blog. It also helps connect and engage the community by providing online media coverage on local issues.
“Twitter tells you things a lot faster, and they will give you the lowdown” Love, who tweets under username @tdlove5, explains. “One of the criticisms that #oakmtg seems to have is that we’re too critical, or too watchdog. But I think that’s important because there’s no restraint, and people don’t feel like they have to censor themselves.”
Love also stresses the importance of #oakmtg being a tool used by residents, which is different from being an official group or organization. “It allows people the opportunity to be more free in their opinions,” she says. “We don’t have to worry about if we’re offending someone, or if we’re going to lose funding. These are just citizens of Oakland who have a stake in what happens in the meetings.”
The benefits of using social media to ask questions at the live forum were apparent to Michael Lubin, who has lived in Oakland for 34 years and regularly attends city council meetings. “The questions were less biased,” he said, after the forum ended. “There was less ideological baggage attached to the questions than there have been in other forums.”
The forum was covered live on KTOP, and streamed live on the KTOP website. Search the hashtag #oakmtg on Facebook and Twitter to see what people posted during the event, and check out the Oakland Wiki to find out more about the history of the tag.
In a separate event to engage the community with the November election, Oakland Local will also be hosting a series of interviews to see what the you, the residents, have to say about our city’s next mayor and what you think they need to change. If you’d like to contribute, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your opinions, questions, or comments.