Thirty-three eager San Antonio candidates are competing for city council seats in this year’s election. Most of them have been utilizing social media in one form or another to sway voters into their fold and encourage favorable turnout. But what role does internet-based civic engagement play within local candidates’ campaign strategies? In a city that shuns honest political discourse — the Spurs take precedence here — does a digital soapbox even matter?
According to a 2009 Pew Research Center study, 53 percent of internet users surveyed used the web to determine how they would cast their midterm votes. In another report conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, 22 percent of adults specifically used Twitter and Facebook to remain engaged in 2010 campaigns and elections.
When I think of political campaigns run in conjunction with Facebook or Twitter, I think of Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign. When I think of politics more broadly and the power of social media, I’m reminded of the Egyptian revolution as a trending Twitter topic. As an early adopter of social media and an advocate working to diminish the digital divide in San Antonio, I’d argue that depending solely on social media for a city council win would be somewhat of a longshot. There are fundamental needs that should be addressed first and foremost.
First of all, online voters are not so different from offline voters in San Antonio. Both groups still feel disenfranchised and disconnected from city leaders. Repairing that breach will take a decidedly different digital approach than we’ve seen to date.
For example, Mayor Julian Castro has two Twitter accounts and two Facebook accounts. It seems that half of the accounts are administrated by his staff, while the other two are run by the mayor himself — and yet neither the mayor nor his staff have figured out how to leverage their social media traffic into an ongoing conversation. And, if I didn’t personally know differently, one would assume that Castro’s internet feed was just spam — nothing more than mayoral updates full of broken links with no text, one-way shout-outs, and unanswered questions.
Granted, it’s difficult to be sure how we should strategically use the internet to interact with one another politically. Do an online search for a “new media expert,” and you’ll be overwhelmed by the plethora of social-media gurus — all of them with so-called proven tactics and promises of mega results. Speaking into the World Wide Web might feel like calling into an endless abyss, but online users’ personal boundaries are still very much intact. On or off the net one political truth endures: Voters need to be treated with respect.
In the end, it’s personal. Ask the celebrated social-media mayor, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker. After an unsuccessful run in 2002, Booker took to the web before running again in 2006. The second time around he won with an outstanding 72 percent of the vote. Considering also that Booker has more than one million people following his Twitter feed and more than 40,000 Facebook fans, online sources agree that he uses social media effectively. How so? He’s following one of social media’s golden rules that local would-be politicians should heed: Be relevant.
Candidates running for office should consider the above, while also factoring in a few more specific social-media rules. First of all, answer questions from your net-based constituents instead of just RSS feeding us your one-way messages. Have a back-and-forth conversation, and do so by establishing a dialogue to simplify complex issues connected to your candidacy. Tell us where you’re grabbing barbacoa tacos on a Saturday morning before block walking. Almost all of the candidates — even the reluctant nineteen-year-old — mentions infrastructure. But voters need more. Retweet information when there is something more to be learned. Be upfront by sharing veracious ideas for systemic change via Facebook updates so voters can respond with their own insights. But this is San Antonio. We wouldn’t begrudge you an occasional “Go, Spurs, Go!” either.
What about you? How do you see candidates running for office conducting themselves online? How should they?
San Antonio resident and media justice activist DeAnne Cuellar blogs throughout the week at blogs.sacurrent.com and writes this bi-weekly column. She welcomes your questions and feedback and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Tech Tease on Twitter at @thetechtease.