The 140-character campaign: How social media is changing Kentucky politics

08/02/2010 05:56 PM

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul wants you to be his friend.

On Sunday, Paul’s campaign dropped a “friend bomb” similar in concept to the political online fund-raising “money bomb” Paul has been using to generate campaign cash. Paul hoped to get more than 40,000 new “friends” in a single day to join his campaign’s Facebook page as a part of a show of supporter strength. His goal was to go from about 57,000 fans to 100,000.

Meanwhile, Paul’s Democratic opponent Jack Conway has used social media to in a different way – to poke at Paul for much of the summer using his campaign’s Twitter account.

Suddenly, the forced brevity of Twitter and the ongoing exchanges between the campaigns and their supporters using such social media sites has turned this into a campaign fought in 140-character increments.

And it’s happening in Washington just as it is in Kentucky campaigns with “friend wars” that Congressional Democrats and Republicans held this summer. Even veteran lawmakers U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and out-going U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning felt they couldn’t resist the call any longer and started new social media networks.

Social media, like Facebook, has become as ingrained into politics as it has into other daily workings of the world. Just recently, President Barack Obama jokingly suggested getting rid of the “red phones” used during the Cold War with Russia in favor of using Twitter for military emergencies.

Over the last two years, Facebook pages and Twitter – which allows users to share thoughts and updates in 140 characters – have taken their place along with phone banks and mailing lists in the voter outreach arsenal.

“Ten years ago getting any news from your campaign out to supporters involved 20 people stuffing envelopes,” said Jay Hill, the campaign manager for Todd Lally, a Republican challenger for the 3rd District race in Louisville. “But with social media, getting info out isn’t as hard as it used to be.”

In fact, a campaign that doesn’t have at least one social media account could raise questions about its credibility and viability.

“We’re keeping with the times,” said Hal Heiner III, the son of Republican candidate Hal Heiner, Jr., who is running for Louisville mayor, of the campaign’s reasoning in using social media regularly in the campaign. “Five years ago a Facebook account for a politician would have been unthinkable. It would have been ‘we need a website,’ but now you need both.”

Expanding reach

The fact that social media has grown instead of fading suggests there’s something permanent to the trend.

Originally intended to reach younger voters who are generally apathetic, the opening of Facebook to the general public, along with Twitter’s openness, allows campaigns to reach everyone with one click of the mouse.

“When we first started doing it I figured it would be the college-aged group (following us),” Hill said. “But we’re engaged with 18-to-24-year-olds to 50-to-60-year-olds. Facebook and Twitter are so mainstream that all people are on it.”

And because seemingly everyone is getting onto those sites, it means more people will see a Facebook post or a paid ad on Facebook.

For instance, Democratic challenger in Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District, John Waltz, has targeted Kentucky residents — even those outside his district — with political ads that offer a blanket criticism of Paul, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Waltz’s opponent, U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis.

Likewise, Conway has started pouring campaign money into Facebook ads as well.

Campaign interplay

Campaigns also have engaged – or attempted to – in debates with each other, sometimes slinging mud all over each other’s social media accounts. With the use of the @ symbol on Twitter or using a tag on Facebook, a candidate can send a direct smear to the page of their opponent.

“The approach to social media is multifaceted,” said David Adams, the former campaign manager and chairman for Paul’s U.S. Senate bid who was a ubiquitous tweeter during the GOP primary. “But part of it, what makes a social media strategy from good to great is how effective you can be in de-moralizing the other side.”

In Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race, that battle is on-going nearly every week.

@ConwayForKy, the Twitter account for Conway, used something Adams had tweeted in March – before the May 18 primary elections — against Paul early in the general election.

Adams had tweeted that there was “one week until the Bailout Ball” the term Paul’s campaign used to deride GOP primary opponent Trey Grayson’s fund-raiser, which was attended by many Republicans who voted for the bailout of Wall Street.

But the Conway campaign’s re-tweet of Adams came in late June after news broke that Paul was traveling to his own Washington fund-raiser also attended by Republicans who voted for the bailout.

In seconds, the Conway campaign made its attack simply and virally: “Rand Paul was going back on a primary stance and primary pledge.”

Conway’s campaign proceeded to criticize Paul for several days, even directly addressing the Paul campaign’s Twitter account @DrRandPaul.

Reached weeks after the event, Aaron Ament, new media director for the Conway campaign, said that was a way for the Conway campaign to attribute its source of information.

“We use it as a way to identify what (Paul or others) have been saying so supporters can find out info from his campaign and ours,” Ament said. “It shows where we are getting our facts.”

Tweets can even be dismissed by rival campaigns as easily as an attack in a news release.

“The Conway camp is trying in vain to establish some relevancy,” Adams said in response to the direct attacks from the Conway Twitter account to Paul’s Twitter account.

The Conway campaign declined to discuss their social media strategies or even what they personally thought the political future of social media is, furthering the idea that the use of social media is already becoming a guarded campaign secret much like internal polls.

Using social media as part of a campaign doesn’t always mean everyone plays nice, though.

While both Hill and Heiner said they aim to stay positive on their pages, supporters of a political opponent can still comment on someone else’s page. Heiner said his father’s campaign has decided not to moderate any comments “unless its offensive.”

In the U.S. Senate race, it’s not uncommon to see malicious comments against the candidate on the Facebook wall of Paul’s campaign and the scene is only slightly better on Conway’s page.

And much of it goes unfiltered.

A sampling of comments on Paul’s Facebook page, for instance, include some anointing Paul as the second coming, others calling him a racist and an occasional angry commenter hoping for unprintable things to happen to him.

Yet, the Paul campaign wasn’t worried about the nasty side of a social media campaign, Adams said in an interview before he left the Paul campaign.

“Letting the energy flow and play out through the social media process is healthy, even if it turns some people off,” Adams said. “But the ability togetonline and not necessarily follow Robert’s Rules of Order is a great thing.”

One of those people is Reginald Davis, a regular commenter on Paul’s Facebook page. He said in an online interview that he gravitates toward social media to get involved because other options don’t fit citizen’s needs.

“I have written many letters to politicians, and they always respond with ‘this is what I think is best’ which is generally a mass-produced response,” Davis said. “

He said he also likes how social media connects him with others who are at least interested in politics.

“Most people are idiots and it’s mostly a waste of time,” Davis said. “But if you can educate a few people, you’re doing a lot more good than writing a well-thought-out letter to a monkey.”

Davis also said that relying on the “mainstream media” usually means getting a “one-way dialogue.” Most of the people commenting using social media usually have their minds made up, Davis said, and most of the conversation is “unproductive.”

Because of that, social media has become the one-stop shop for people trying to explain the nuances of their political philosophies, Davis said.

“Instead of hearing a select blip on the news calling somebody racist when any sane, rational person would be outraged by this type of pigeonholing,” Davis said. “People don’t trust the media analyzing politics anymore. It’s a game to divide people into partisan bickering. Nobody is voting out the media, so they can act as ridiculous as possible.”

Another advantage to social network campaigning is its accessibility and availability 24 hours a day.

Debbe Hardymon May, a native of Augusta, Ky., who comments on Conway’s page, said Facebook’s simplicity and ability to connect with like-minded friends allows her to get involved.

“I’m just responding to what other people are saying,” said May, who says her interested in politics dates back to high school. “It’s easy to respond to what other people already said. But it also gives me a hope for a better world.”

With political social media use becoming so widespread, May said it’s almost taboo to be in office and not have a Facebook page. It routinely surprises her when she searches for a local official on Facebook and can’t find them.

“Some are not using (social media) as well as they could,” May said. “I guess it’s based on their own experiences, but people who take advantage of social media opportunity then they’ll get their message out.”

The origins of change

In the past, a campaign was a political machine. A few people controlled the message and controlled how things were run. Supporters were told where to go and what to do.  In 2010, that’s no longer the case, thanks in part to social media.

“It really democratized the whole political concept,” said Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville. “Social media has changed the way we get info, how we learn about candidates. It’s a whole new day and 2008 was the watershed moment.”

Clayton pointed to the tea party movement as further proof of a broad, citizen-run campaign springing up since 2008. Through social media and the Internet, like-minded voters have created a grassroots national network preaching less government and less spending, not unlike the Obama network calling for “change” and “hope.”

“Campaigns are much more de-centralized,” Clayton said. “With these new campaigns, supporters are given freedom and trust to move things forward. If you remember the Obama campaign, they gathered large crowds from use of social media.”

The Obama campaign — which has morphed into an offshoot of the Democratic National Committee called Organizing for America — fully embraced the Internet in a way few politicians had before. With an interactive website that took supporters and connected them city by city using Facebook and Twitter, the campaign spun an intricate and far-flung web of Internet support.

Obama’s campaign built on the blueprint left over from Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, which first harnessed the Internet’s potential for fund-raising. Dean also listened to the blogosphere and used, a precursor to Facebook’s appeal and “Tweet-ups.”

Other campaigns took notice. Twitter took off. Facebook and YouTube joined with CNN during debates to provide real-time feedback and the chance voters anywhere could instantly shape the view of how the debate was going.

“The 2008 election opened up what social media can do (for a campaign),” Hill said. “Our job is to capitalize and expand on it until something newer, faster and better comes along.”

Further the trends

For now, getting out the campaign’s message is the main use of social media sites. That’s even true for those who aren’t up for re-election, such as McConnell, who sends out news releases about his YouTube videos as if they are as important as an event appearance.

But given the rate at which the role of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter sites in campaigns have evolved, it’s unclear how influential they could be by the next presidential election in 2012.

The features of those sites could conceivably allow a candidate could to run almost entirely through the internet with press releases, campaign videos, debates, even neighborhood forums all at a voter’s fingertips, and without a live event happening outside of cyberspace.

But if Paul’s experience with the friend-bomb is any indication, that might still be a ways off.

After jumping out with a quick 4,000-friend boost on Sunday, the number of new friends tapered off. By Monday afternoon when the campaign sent out a thank-you tweet to end the friend-bomb, the campaign’s Facebook page had a total of just less than 63,000 fans. That was well short of the 100,000 goal.

Still the concept of a “friend bomb” is something new when it comes to political campaigns and could be the start of a campaign trend, itself.

As for what’s next, it’s anyone’s guess.

“I don’t know,” Clayton said. “I’m sure they’re working on the next thing.”

- Kenny Colston


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