Twitter has become a pathway for direct communication with legislators - but not without consequences (Photo via Pixabay cc: public domain)

RALEIGH, N.C. — In the digital age, social media has become more and more important, to the point that news stories are being written about Tweets. Recently, two North Carolina politicians have come under fire for their use of Twitter. Sen. Joel Ford issued an apology after an online altercation with an LGBTQ advocate, and former Rep. Chris Sgro is drawing criticism for allegedly lobbying via Twitter too soon after his legislative term.

As the News & Observer noted, former state legislators are required by law to complete a six-month ‘cooling-off’ period before engaging in lobbying activities. This requirement is complicating the life of Chris Sgro, a former N.C. House Representative who is also the executive director of Equality NC, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.

Sgro affirms that he has not been lobbying, which is defined by state law as “influencing or attempting to influence legislative or executive action, or both, through direct communication or activities with a designated individual (such as an elected official) or that designated individual’s immediate family.” His Twitter feed, however, has drawn some questions.

Sgro has sent a number of Tweets directly to members of the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA), mostly criticism of House Bill 2 (HB2) and “compromise” repeal bills that LGBTQ advocate deem discriminatory.

One of the authors of the state’s lobbying regulations, former Republican Rep. Paul Stam, told News & Observer that Sgro’s Twitter use falls into a gray area in terms of legality.

“I would think that what he does grassroots from his email machine is probably not covered [under the law], but what he does directly with members is,” Stam said. “It doesn’t look good, and it definitely is not within the spirit of the law.”

However, this criticism has not stopped Sgro from advocating via Twitter, including calling out Sen. Joel Ford on his anti-LGBTQ record. Ford, now running for Charlotte mayor, has also recently faced repercussions for ill-advised Twitter use.

Ford took part in a controversial Twitter exchange on March 14 that involved LGBTQ activist and former qnotes editor Matt Comer. Another Twitter user called Ford homophobic, to which the senator responded with a confusion GIF. Comer then criticized Ford, comparing his GIF use to former Mayor Pat McCrory’s “cold shoulder.”

Ford’s response to Comer was a GIF of a dog defecating in the snow.

The senator’s move has received serious backlash, including criticism from The Charlotte Observer. The paper’s editorial board scolded Ford:

Certainly, we understand it’s not pleasant to be criticized, especially when you believe it’s unfair. We also understand the temptation that Twitter offers for snarky responses to snarky barbs. But a North Carolina senator needs to resist that easy satisfaction, and a prospective mayor of Charlotte needs to understand that criticism is a part of the job. In fact, it will be more frequent and more biting than what Ford faced Tuesday. Is he equipped to respond the way a leader – or even just an adult – should?

Comer was interviewed about the incident by NC Policy Watch and said he looks forward to an open dialogue with Sen. Ford about LGBTQ issues. The senator called Comer to apologize and agreed to meet for coffee.

Ford’s campaign manager, Dakota Cary, said that the incident was not ill-intentioned. Apparently Ford only intended to convey an awkward feeling, not cause offense.

“I think there’s a disconnect between trying to use GIFs as a way to communicate with people and what they actually mean,” Cary told WFAE. “You end up with a problem like this where what he wants to convey and what comes across (are) two different things.”

Whatever the intention, Ford has apologized, but both his and Sgro’s stories raise another question: what should be the importance of social media in politics?

In a nation where the President’s 2 a.m. Twitter rants are highly publicized, it seems that this vehicle for communication causes more problems than it solves. However, as Sgro and Comer both seem to realize, social media has the potential to reach legislators more directly than other forms of protest can.

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