DULUTH — Sharon McMahon’s 18-year-old and his friends watched her on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” on Monday, Feb. 22.
While her son called with accolades from college, there is, at times, a lukewarm reception at home. “My daughters 16 and 13, they’re just a little bit more reserved about it. I’m not that cool to them.
“Nothing keeps you humble like adolescent children,” McMahon said with a laugh.
This fall, the former teacher launched @SharonSaysSo, an Instagram account for nonpartisan, fact-based information on the U.S. government.
Overnight, her professional photography profile went from pictures of babies and high school grads to humorous and easily digestible videos and posts debunking conspiracy theories, or explaining whataboutism and the difference between bias and lies.
“My goal is never to get people to think like I think. My goal is to provide you with fact-based, nonpartisan information, so you can form your own educated opinions,” she said.
For her more than 500,000 followers, McMahon posts daily Q&As and summaries of national events. She answers direct questions and hosts virtual workshops — and it all comes with character.
On @SharonSaysSo, McMahon talks about the Electoral College by using a wire basket and a wooden bin. In a video illustrating presidential vs. congressional power, she uses a tiny stuffed sheep and rabbit. Later, she breaks into a King Arthur accent.
In other clips, she can be seen dancing with captions overhead or mouthing a Paul Simon song. Often, there are other wardrobe changes or fun filters, along with off-shoot posts about whales, make-up or that time she sat in a SCOTUS hearing with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
McMahon aims for her page to not just be super professional 24/7.
“It’s fun to have a laugh and fun to talk about bald eagles.
“When you’re in a classroom, you want to get to know your teacher. You want that personal connection,” she said.
And it’s resonating.
Along with her half a million followers and a “Daily Show” interview, McMahon has also appeared in The Washington Post, Upworthy and on CNN. She’s launching a podcast in May, and her first book is in the works.
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Political science related to American government has been a long-lived passion for McMahon.
“I was the kid paying for Newsweek subscriptions with my own babysitting money,” she said.
At the University of Minnesota Duluth, she was the president of the political science association.
McMahon said she is drawn to constitutional law because: “The way you have to think about using this almost 250-year-old document to answer questions of today, that is very interesting to me.”
After student-teaching in the Northland, McMahon’s first professional education job was in St. Paul. She later taught primarily 10th- through 12th-graders in the San Francisco Bay area and a Maryland suburb of D.C., she said.
McMahon and her family returned to Duluth after the consolidation of high schools and subsequent teacher layoffs. “I knew moving back here, I was going to be leaving the classroom, and that was a tradeoff I was willing to make. But I never stopped loving teaching, and I have always missed it,” she said.
Among the values she brought from the front of the class to social media: “My goal was to leave the classroom with students having no idea how I voted.” And that’s how she runs @SharonSaysSo.
In the runup to the 2020 election, McMahon noticed an influx of misinformation about how the government works, what the Electoral College does and more. She posted a refresher on the latter to her Instagram account Sept. 11, 2020.
People asked for a weekly video. That led to a couple filmed Q&As. Soon after came the calls from TV and radio stations.
The upward trajectory skyrocketed as the election ramped up.
“We had a lot of division, a lot of things that were unclear. … My account became a place where people could go to understand the facts of the matter without being told what they should think about those facts.”
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Today, she’s responding to timely topics — minimum wage or the proposed stimulus bill — as well as inquiries about basic functions of government.
Many have anxiety or suspicion about Googling information; some have difficulty plucking out disreputable sources, and many fear asking a question and appearing stupid. (In one of her clips, McMahon encourages viewers to search sites that end in “.edu.”)
Her page presents an opportunity for a one-on-one, judgment-free interaction where people can ask a real person and get an honest response, she said. “If you want to know the difference between Congress and the Senate, I will happily explain.”
Her page followers hail from a variety of political beliefs.
In one of her Instagram stories, “Cons/libs,” McMahon makes space for neutral communication by posing the question with screenshots of the responses:
"What is something you wish people who lean right understood?"
"I am not anti Republican at all. I am anti Trump. There is a big difference."
"That we want you to loudly condemn this if you're against it. Even if it's uncomfortable."
Also: “What is something you wish people who lean left understood?”
“Just bc I'm a Republican doesn't mean I don't support BLM and other equality issues.”
“Ultimately, we just don't believe govt is functional / trustworthy enough to fix social probs.”
McMahon said @SharonSaysSo has shown her that the majority of people want similar things. We just have different ideas of the best way to get there.
“If you and your significant other both want to go out to dinner, and he or she wants to take the freeway, and you want to take the scenic route, ultimately, you both want the same thing, which is going out to eat.
“Over and over, I see people from all sides of the political spectrum want safe communities; they want freedom; they want peace; they want prosperity; they want good jobs; they want a clean environment.
“We want to take care of old people; we want to take care of the sick. … The ultimate goal is the same. When we can agree on that goal, we can have much more productive conversations,” she said.
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In January, McMahon launched sharonmcmahon.com and began teaching Government for Grownups workshops, with topics ranging from how Congress works to Constitution 101.
During Tuesday’s class, people logged in from New Orleans, Utah, Maryland and Oregon.
The Texans, McMahon greeted happily, pleased to see they had power. She then presented the authors of the Constitution, what’s in it, what’s missing and more with at least one shout-out to “Hamilton.”
More than 10,000 people signed up for her workshops in February. The numbers were so high, viewers weren’t allowed in at one point, an issue that has since been resolved. “Too many people want to learn about the Constitution. That’s a good problem to have,” she said.
And so far, technical and infrastructural challenges are most prevalent — managing the demand for access to workshops or the volume of emails and incoming questions.
Hers is a small team composed of a longtime employee, a publicist, a web designer, and they’ll soon be hiring one more.
As for her Instagram videos: “That’s 100% me,” she said.
When her Instagram account hit 50,000 followers, McMahon set her sights on a giveaway.
The first $10,000 she raised went to Twin Ports organizations. Then she set a goal of $5,000 intended for RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that buys medical debt in bulk at a discount to help relieve what people owe. Days later, her followers gave $500,000, which buys $50 million in debt.
McMahon recently launched an effort that connects Texans in need directly with those who want to help with supplies. There will be more fundraising in the future, and McMahon is in the process of forming a 501(c)(3). She plans to launch her podcast, Government for Grownups, in May.
Among all that has happened and is to come, McMahon said, “The community that has formed, that is perhaps what I am most proud of.”
FIND HER ON INSTAGRAM: @SharonSaysSo
WATCH THE INTERVIEW: "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" Season 26 E 62, Feb. 22, 2021