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Is Social Media Helping or Hurting California Politics

by Spot Us May 21, 2009

The following is a three part series funded by Spot.Us, written by Jackson West with editorial support from The content is Creative Commons, but all three parties must be given attribution.

Social Media Meets Politics: Pols Chasing Publicity Find Web Waters Welcoming


Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other popular sites for publishing online have become ubiquitous in the news media, if not in everyone’s actual day to day lives. Recently, public officials have successfully made it onto the bandwagon by adopting these tools in their campaigns, fundraising, volunteer recruitment and, of course, garnering publicity. But are these tools truly being used to connect directly to voters and their concerns, or are they just another way to campaign?

Barack Obama certainly made hay online, with plaudits, publicity and private contributions rolling in over the course of the campaign thanks to a popular Twitter stream, Facebook chatter, and a social network,, powered by software from local company Six Apart. Yet once elected, the new media music died. His Twitter stream went silent for weeks, and only four updates have been made since election day.

Local politicians who are “tweeting,” or regularly posting messages to Twitter, include State Attorney General Jerry Brown, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, State Senator Leland Yee, State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, and San Francisco Board of Supervisors Clerk Angela Calvillo, on the Board’s behalf. Befitting a brand new form of communication, they’re all using it differently. The one common thread is that they would presumably all be relatively easy to reach, especially by a constituent and member of the press.

Adriel Hampton works as an investigator for the San Francisco City Attorney’s office and has kicked off a congressional campaign for California’s tenth district. An avid user of Twitter personally, he maintains a profile on Facebook, and is an active participant in a social network called GovLoop, where public employees are exploring ways to better connect public service with private taxpayers. It was at his urging that the City Attorney’s office created an account on Twitter.

“We’re trying to be transparent and apolitical in a way that advances the public interest, the public’s right to know and builds public trust in the office,” Hampton said of the tone and impetus of discussion on the site. Certainly transparency and authenticity seem to be two benefits most often cited by proponents using these new communications tools in government.

Some of the decisions made San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and his large communications staff and coterie of campaign aides seem to belie those types of good intentions. Newsom recently used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to officially announce his entry into California’s 2010 gubernatorial election, garnering much media coverage and a few donations in the process.

Newsom’s aides in City Hall and his campaign team have been using these and other online tools for some time, but his office is not known for embracing radical transparency. For instance, while Newsom’s account often features replies to other Twitter users, responding to questions from the press is another matter. Repeated emails to his press secretary Nathan Ballard went unanswered (as did an email to Newsom’s likely gubernatorial opponent Brown).

Maybe the emails got lost in the shuffle. So why not play along and get in touch using Twitter? Because asking questions publicly using the service’s reply feature has gotten reporters in hot water.

“We don’t ask the mayor questions on his Twitter feed,” said San Francisco Chronicle city desk editor Audrey Cooper. There’s no need, she argued. “A press office has a lot of different ways to communicate with the press.” And they probably won’t start any time soon, especially in the wake of San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Steven T. Jones’ experience.


Having been blocked from accessing Newsom’s updates after he asked a question publicly, Jones was accused of “flaming” or harassing the mayor online, and declared the equivalent of a -DCohn1 5/3/09 2:05 AM “troll” by Ballard. Not that it came as a particular surprise to Jones. “We’ve literally had the office door shut in our face before,” he said of his paper’s relationship with the mayor’s communications team.

So tools like Twitter don’t necessarily level the playing field for access, but they do offer an opportunity to make an end run around tough questions from critics and appeal directly to potential supporters without having to go through traditional media channels.

Social Media Meets Politics: Technology Proves an Enabler for Ambitious Politicians

If Twitter isn’t necessarily a chance to engage directly with critics instead of issuing statements through the press, then what is it for? Newsom argued in a Geek Entertainment Television interview that “for people who want to offer honest criticism or counsel and advice, it’s very meaningful.” (See bottom of page for video).

Even activists like Jeremy Pollock with the League of Young Voters rely on online tools. For Pollock, Facebook has become “my default place for keeping tabs on political events and fundraisers,” even though the organization still focuses on providing printed voter guides and more traditional peer to peer political engagement.

And from a campaign standpoint, social media also offers significant opportunities for fund raising. The perceived authenticity of communication over social networks means that unlike traditional online advertising, “click throughs” for social media appeals and recommendations are much higher. And unlike buying ads on search engines like Google, not to mention television, newspaper, billboard or even bumper sticker ads, there is no direct cost.


More importantly, unlike offline advertising methods, online methods make it much easier for individuals to go from inspiration to donation. There are no checks to fill out or envelopes to stamp, briefcases full of cash to smuggle or hookers and blow to surreptitiously deliver — while outsider candidates using Paypal to collect contributions have run afoul of local election officials when public financing is sought, privately financed campaigns can use sites like ActBlue to offer the same transaction ease. And subscription donations, like those that netted the Barack Obama campaign so much cash, mean that over the course of a long election supporters on a budget can offer small contributions over time — which can amount to significant money by election day.

The benefit of this is that candidates don’t necessarily have to rely on large institutional donors, at least in theory. But congressional candidate Adriel Hampton only managed to turn 10 of his 2,800 Twitter followers into donors with an appeal shortly after announcing his candidacy. “Unless you really tap into Marko Moulitsas favorites, fundraising is still a phone call operation,” Hampton concluded from the experience.

Newsom has done better, netting a total of $566,995 through ActBlue. A fundraising drive featuring a barrage of Twitter and Facebook status updates on April 31st netted a new record of 282 donations in a single day. Altogether, appeals broadcast online via email, Facebook and Twitter with a link to the Gavin Newsom for Governor account on ActBlue grossed a total of $361,619.74 by the end of April.

With 1,382 donors, that amounts to an average donation of $262.37. But with 338,605 followers on Twitter and 46,955 supporters on Facebook, ActBlue can only claim a conversion rate of 0.3 percent so far — which doesn’t include any “viral” distribution, such as followers and supporters copying, pasting and otherwise relaying a donation appeal link on their own profiles and pages.

Meanwhile, a single day campaign event in Sacramento cost $100,000. And it wasn’t paid for by small donors, but by more traditional sources including AT&T, PG&E, unions and a lobbyists, if filtered through the state chapter of the College Democrats. In the last California gubernatorial election, over $130 million dollars was spent among all the candidates. The half million dollars raised online so far would amount to only one percent of $50 million dollars, which is the kind of money a Democratic primary nominee is likely to raise and spend in order to fight an independently wealthy Republican challenger like billionaire businesswoman Meg Whitman.

And Whitman’s not exactly a technophobe — she previously served as CEO of eBay.

The six-figure Sacramento party was aimed at young people, and for good reason. Newsom has made a point of contrasting his comparative youth against former governor and likely primary opponent, Attorney General Jerry Brown. Yet, while still the mayor of Oakland, it was Brown who was the first to blog — long before Newsom’s missives were featured on Daily Kos or the Huffington Post. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has yet to formally throw his hat into the gubernatorial race, has already lobbed a cutting salvo over the bows of both the Newsom and Brown campaigns by declaring that as mayor of LA, he “is not going to Twitter while Rome burns.”

In his recent reelection campaign, Villaraigosa may have deduced that Twitter and Facebook are a great way to reach out to some voters, but not all voters — and certainly not key demographics in a statewide election. Speaking from his own experience organizing local constituents through the League of Young Voters, Jeremy Pollock noted that “the San Francisco Twitter culture seems a little older than the Facebook crowd and more of a techie type crowd than the political crowd.” (It should be noted that the Twitter account which the League of Young Voters maintains was another of those known to be blocked by the Newsom account).


Pollock pointed to a study by San Francisco’s YouthVote [PDF] that revealed Asian-American and “white” (caucasian) students at San Francisco schools were the most likely to use Facebook, while black and latino students were much more likely to use MySpace. Newsom and Villaraigosa both have MySpace profiles, though Newsom’s official Web site doesn’t link to it and neither candidates’ campaigns have updated their MySpace profiles since last year’s national and statewide elections (as of this writing, Newsom’s last login was April 21, three weeks ago). Brown has no obvious MySpace presence at all.

MySpace is owned by News Corp., which hasn’t exactly been friendly to the Democratic party machine. Newsom even caught flack over Twitter from his own cousin after a televised appearance on another News Corp. property, Fox News. But the lack of MySpace engagement signifies campaigns giving up on reaching out to marginal constituents. The choice of Twitter and Facebook over MySpace betrays any stated intent at radical inclusion, since choosing sides in the digital divide belies the crass algebra of class prejudice in online electioneering.

A certain class of constituents with the time to keep themselves interested and informed can now reach out to and interact with each other and their elected representatives as nominal peers, even anonymously (if careful). This surely opens up new avenues of both advocacy and dissent. “It does democratize information so that it’s not filtered by an editor of a newspaper,” said Newsom of Twitter and other online services in his GETV interview.

Does that mean statements presented directly by public officials online are more valuable to the public than excerpts, quotes and paraphrased details as part of a newspaper article or television report? Certainly, they’re invaluable as source documents for citizens, other officials, researchers and historians. But what of the emails, text messages and other private communications between government officials which aren’t published online — will Twitter and Facebook help “democratize” that information as well?

Social Media Meets Politics: Are Politicians Embracing Twitter for All the Wrong Reasons?

What few of these eager and ambitious men and women angling for higher office or their coteries of public and private aides have acknowledged are the real and current, or potential and future problems arising from new social media tools: ethical improprieties, interest conflicts and propaganda abuses are obvious consequences in theory and practice. Social networks and Web publishing make monitoring the majority’s public sentiment and mollifying it with a mouthful of rhetoric easier and more politically expedient than ever. “My job, and the job of all good journalists I think, is to put that message in context,” the Chronicle’s Audrey Cooper remarked when asked about statements and press releases issued by public officials.

Almost anybody who’s posted a significant quantity of text, photos or video online for an extended period of time has regretted at least one public revelation, and might have even deleted the embarrassing item from the public record (or at least used a Web site’s privacy tools to restrict access). Even then, deletions and access restrictions aren’t reliable, as search engines and other Web sites may keep copies which may remain publicly available, and motivated snoops can find ways around privacy barriers.

Elected officials are the very definition of public figures who’ve chosen to sacrifice their right to privacy. Obliged to serve the public openly and honestly, though constantly encountering opportunities for corruption through personal ambition and political gain, their choices between keeping private secrets or telling public truths (and lies) pits their individual interests against those of their constituents.

Shortly after the Cosco Busan freighter sprang a leak, spilling toxic fuel into San Francisco Bay, Mayor Newsom left on a planned vacation to Hawaii, assuring residents that he was in constant contact with local officials dealing with the environmental catastrophe. Yet after returning from his trip, Newsom refused to provide details of messages he sent or received while away — citing the use of a personal iPhone as reason enough deny access to records of any communication between himself and other public servants.


Presumably, the mayor updates his Twitter account from the same iPhone, or better yet, a newer model. But by using a personal device, he can not only avoid public disclosure statues by “co-mingles” both public and private business — also avoiding laws against using publicly funded facilities for political ends like soliciting donations and campaign support.

By the same logic, using privately owned Web sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, politicians can also ignore record keeping and public disclosure statutes while indulging in public business or personal promotion as they see fit. It allows the mayor to add “favorites” from his MayorGavinNewsom account to appear as thumbnails on his NewsomforCalifornia account, co-mingling purported city business with promotional efforts such as his campaign kickoff ad.

“The strategy of what they’re doing is have as little as possible go on their Web site,” explained online political strategy consultant Bob Brigham. Brigham is another Twitter user who was blocked from by Newsom’s account. “It was petty,” he said of the snub. Yet he defended the mayor’s use of the account for both personal publicity and public engagement.

“Some people would tell you there’s sketchy ethical issues, but I don’t believe [that to be the case],” he explained. For folks who ask simple, concise questions about city services, he felt the mayor was within his rights to answer as a sort of 311 operator by proxy. “Even though it is his personal account, with the way the world works, I think it makes sense if somebody asks ‘How do I get rid of my mattress?’ for him to point out large item disposal.” As an example, Brigham lauded California Secretary of State Deborah Bowen as “The best person in California politics of electeds on Twitter.”


Bowen’s Twitter stream is certainly personal, and the tone is certainly a familiar one for typical Twitter users. The updates on meeting schedules posted to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors account, with its strictly business mien, is tragically unendearing by comparison. But with Newsom, Brown and Villaraigosa, while it’s clear that the Twitter and Facebook updates serve their personal interest (namely, to woo voters in the hopes of getting elected), it’s not so clear that they are publishing updates themselves.

It’s not uncommon for celebrities and other busy people to hire someone as a ghost writer to manage their online media presence. Both Newsom and Villaraigosa occasionally make spelling or grammatical errors, which would be unlikely if written by an underling anxious about making a mistake. Yet Brown has help managing his LinkedIn account, some of Villaraigosa’s updates are signed DL by an aide named Daniel, and early updates on Newsom’s Twitter account were written in the third person.

The latter were probably handled by Deputy Communications Director Brian Purchia, who’s widely credited with maintaining Newsom’s Facebook profile and though working for the mayor’s office, describes himself as working in the “Online Media industry” on LinkedIn. And he probably has help in the form of interns who were solicited on Newsom’s Facebook profile. If not Purchia, certainly one of the nearly dozen staffers on the city payroll who work in the mayor’s office of communications are tracking activity and likely helping to keep all of Newsom’s accounts current.

So to some degree tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are being used to directly address voter questions and concerns, and also offer a little insight into the lives of our elected officials. But policies on disclosure and accreditation vary widely, and while it’s one way to reach a certain segment of constituents, many more are left out. And whatever public value it offers for conducting public business has generally proven minimal compared to the personal value for politicians chasing publicity, donor contributions and votes on election day.
Hat tip for a comment from Greg Dewar of N-Judah left on SF Appeal

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