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Nikolai Mather takes us through the most significant municipal elections in rural Cape Fear this year.

How Facebook is changing Southport's 2023 mayoral race

Aerial view of the City of Southport, North Carolina. A long pier extends into the ocean, the sun sets behind the city.
City of Southport
The City of Southport, North Carolina.

Southport has long stayed offline. But this year, the Internet might make a big difference in its municipal elections

Southport is one of the more recognizable small towns in coastal North Carolina. Tourists know the town for its Fourth of July Festival, the 2002 film A Walk to Remember, and what residents call its "salubrious breezes." But according to Joe Pat Hatem, who has been mayor of Southport since 2019, there's one thing it's never been known for: its Internet presence.

"You know, the previous mayor didn't even use the computer or email or anything like that," he said.

That all changed fairly recently. The combined forces of population growth and pandemic-era connection has suddenly made the Internet much more popular in this small rural community. And for the first time, candidates have to contend with its influence on local politics.

Why now?

You might be wondering why it took this long — the Internet, which turned 30 this year, has long swayed American elections big and small. But Brunswick County is a little different. It has a very high retiree population: the median age is 55, sixteen years older than the statewide average. This is also a fairly rural area, so the infrastructure for quality internet has only recently started to build up.

That's not to say Brunswick County was always off the grid. Town employees obviously used technology for their work — it's just that most of them preferred to carry out their affairs in person or over the phone. Hatem still prefers meeting folks in person.

"But you have to be on the Internet. You have to join the 21st century," he said. "So I use, of course, email and text."

Calabash native Taylor Simmons had long used Facebook groups to stay connected with other county residents. She started a smaller one called Friends of Brunswick County back in 2019. By 2020, she was seeing more and more of her neighbors log on in order to stay connected.

She suspects part of it was due to the pandemic — with the stay-at-home orders in place, folks couldn't really see each other like they used to. There was also an influx of members who were new to Brunswick County and looking for housing, jobs and community. But the biggest trend she noticed followed Friends of Brunswick County's more political posts.

"If anything controversial happened in the group, then we would also see a jump in joining and activity," Simmons said. "I think it probably started showing up higher in the algorithm because of that."

The group has since grown to 32,000 members. Members use the group to ask for recommendations, share community alerts, and, increasingly, discuss local politics.

Simmons thinks the political discussions have both pros and cons. On the one hand, she's seen members use Friends of Brunswick County to become more politically aware. Many members have learned about important local politics through the Facebook group. Some have even gone on to politically organize against things like the county's housing crisis and overdevelopment.

On the other hand, she sometimes worries about how contentious these discussions can get.

"People are more bold online, you know!" she said. "They're more willing to say things because they think that there's no consequences from it."

On the side of civility

Hatem is running against Rich Alt, who represents Southport's second ward on the board of aldermen. Alt was elected to the board back in 2021. But before then, he attended their meetings every week in person as a concerned citizen.

He got interested in government during a time of major changes. Hatem, who had been elected in 2019, started to move some of Southport's affairs online. The town began to livestream its board of aldermen meetings, post its meeting agendas and reach out to constituents with social media, particularly Facebook.

Alt said he was one of the "cheerleaders" for this transition.

"From that point forward, the transparency on meetings really exponentially grew," he said.

Alt has long been active online. He's turned his public Facebook profile into something of a political blog. For several years, he's posted a number of op-eds on Southport's current events on Facebook. His friends and followers will sometimes share these with their neighbors. Even after he announced his run for mayor, he hasn't dropped the ball on posting.

"It's a cheaper and easier and faster and more efficient way to reach the people," he said.

But it has also landed him in hot water. Last year, he wrote an op-ed about Southport's city manager position. In the op-ed, he mused whether the town was a "toxic" work environment.

That phrase made headlines in the State Port Pilot.

"It wasn't like I was taking personal attacks on them. I was sticking to where the city was going," he said. "I'm on the side of civility. But I'm also on the side of, 'Let's look at the facts.'"

Alt said he has no interest in picking fights online. According to him, those heated conversations are hardly ever useful for changing minds.

"If you want to show that the person should reflect some other position, you can't attack them on social media," he said. "You're not going to convince them on a social media page that their passion is incorrect."

Still, his colleagues, including Hatem, have asked him to tone it down.

"I accept criticism, but some of these posts can get outrageous at times," he said.

What will this mean for the polls?

This year's mayoral race is a contentious one. Alt is a sitting alderman running against a sitting mayor. Both candidates have vocalized their support for civil political discussion. Nevertheless, the online debate remains heated.

"It gets crazy," said Simmons. "But one of the things that I say a lot is that the freedom of speech is vital to have in a successful society. You cannot have a functioning society if you are scared to say something."

Both Alt and Hatem have said that their campaign duties are still overwhelmingly in-person affairs: door-knocking, meet and greets, et cetera. Hatem said it's easier to see someone's humanity when they're not behind a screen.

"That's why I like being in front of our citizens for the door to doors and the meet and greets," he said.

One thing's for sure: the online conversation is not dying down. And what Facebook's impact on the election will be remains to be seen.

Brunswick County early voting opens Oct. 19. Election Day is Nov. 7.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.