Campaigning is no longer about just knocking on doors and making phone calls – candidates know social media now plays a major role in interacting with voters. They are active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.
Dan Winslow, Republican candidate for the United States Senate and current Massachusetts State Representative, acknowledges that politicians’ personal use of social media sites can get them into some trouble. Winslow himself ran into this problem in March after the Republican debate at Stonehill College.
“One of the criticisms of me at the debate was that I’m too theatrical,” Winslow told me during a phone interview. “Janet Wu [the moderator, WCBV Channel 5 senior political reporter] said that theatrics were ‘un-senatorial.’”
After the debate, Winslow took to Twitter and tweeted that America has a history of theatrics.
“After I sent that tweet I received a lot of negative feedback from Tea Party members,” he said. “They got upset and thought that I was making fun of them. And then conservatives got upset that I was supposedly aligning myself with the Tea Party.”
The Pew Research Center released a study in October 2012 that found 20 percent of social media users have used the tools to follow elected officials and candidates for office. Some 32 percent of the conservative Republicans who use social media follow officials on social media and 27 percent of liberal Democrats who use social media do so.
Candidates for the Massachusetts United States Senate seat left vacant by John Kerry after his appointment to Secretary of State by President Barack Obama are using social media sites to get their message out to the people of the Bay State.
Winslow said he finds social sites like Twitter to be essential in his political career, regardless of the potential dangers.
The former chief counsel to Governor Mitt Romney and Senator Scott Brown himself tweets and posts to his social media web pages – interacting with supporters and critics alike.
“When you follow Barack Obama on Twitter, you usually aren’t getting tweets from the President himself, unless they’re signed –BO,” Winslow commented. “But when you follow me, you’re really getting me.”
Cynthia Needham, The Boston Globe political editor, said that candidates interacting with voters on social media sites is a big reason for journalists themselves to hop on the Twitter and Facebook bandwagon.
“Two and a half years ago, at my old job, we were not allowed to use Twitter,” Needham said. “Now I couldn’t imagine doing my job without it.” Needham previously worked at The Providence Journal.
Reporters, Needham told me from the Globe newsroom, use Twitter and Facebook to follow politicians, staffers, and other experts in the field.
“A lot of times candidates will post unofficial campaign stops on Facebook; a staffer will get into an argument with a staffer from another campaign on Twitter; and other journalists and experts will post breaking news,” Needham said.
Needham acknowledges that social media has changed the relationship between politicians and the press, but not in the way one would think.
“It has increased the conversation,” she said. “Politicians are engaging the media online in ways they never did before. It’s literally a 24-hour back and forth between the two.”
Evan England, vice-chair for programming and policy for the Young Democrats of Massachusetts, said that he saw this 24-hour back and forth on political campaigns he’s worked on.
“Sites like Twitter provide an instantaneous leak of information,” England told me over the phone. “Social media has kind of politicians to skip over the press release.”
Winslow, Needham, and England recognized the significance of blogs as well.
Winslow, who reads www.redmassgroup.com and www.bluemassgroup.com, said that if he wants to try an idea out without formally sending a press release or having a press event he’ll test the idea on a site like BlueMassGroup.
“The interesting thing about BlueMassGroup is that a lot of mainstream journalists follow it,” he said. “I can plant a seed in the comments section and see if they go for it.”
Needham confirmed that both of the blogs Winslow mentioned are regularly read by political reporters.
None of the experts I spoke with sees this relationship between social media and politics going anywhere anytime soon.
As of December 2012, 67 percent of online adults use social networking sites. Of those who use social networking sites or Twitter, 38 percent use those social media to “like” or promote material related to politics or social issues that others have posted. Liberal Democrats who use social media are particularly likely to use the “like” button—52 percent of them have done so and 42 percent of conservative Republicans have also done so.
“Politicians and campaign staffers are interacting with their supports – the base, the volunteers,” England said. “Starting a viral conversation with these people can lead to positive content posted to Facebook or Twitter which starts a positive trend and leads to an even more expansive conversation.”
Creating a social media strategy for use during political campaigns has become an essential part of every candidate’s plan to get into office. With social media sites often getting more traffic than an official campaign website, it’s important for candidates to get and stay connected.
“I first started using sites like Facebook and Twitter in 2010 when I ran for elected office,” Winslow said. “I plan to keep on doing so – it’s a great way to keep in touch with folks.”
Young Professionals, Entrepreneurs and Community Leaders for Ed Markey
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