When television cameras panned across the room full of senators and representatives during the recent presidential address to a joint session of Congress, the audience at home caught a glimpse of several political leaders tweeting away on their BlackBerry phones.
At the national level, social media has been embraced by many politicians. Even the White House has a Twitter account and Flickr feed. But is the same true of local campaigns and politicians? How much are Facebook, MySpace and Twitter being integrated into the communication strategies of local political campaigns?
“We look at it as a way to get a message to our constituents and in a campaign to potential voters,” said Mesa, Arizona mayor Scott Smith in a phone interview.
Smith, who was elected to office in May 2008, said his use of social media is a critical component in engaging his constituents. Mesa is a city of more than 463,000 people, yet this community, located roughly 20 miles from Phoenix, is without its own newspaper or local TV news outlet.
“It’s not just the rise in social media, it’s the change in more traditional sources [of information],” Smith said. “And for a city our size that shares newspapers with an adjoining city and doesn’t have access to more formal and traditional forms of media, social networking has become essential because in many ways it’s not only the best way of getting things out, it’s the only way to get your message out.”
The decline of local journalism
Smith’s community isn’t the only smaller city or town to find itself suffering form a lack of local press. While the New York City mayoral election attracts interest from the New York Times, elsewhere the media landscape has changed drastically, thanks to the shuttering of smaller newspapers that were traditionally the source of local political coverage. In some places, social media is being used to try and replace some of what has been lost in terms of professional reporting.
“As money becomes tighter as traditional media outlets become either non-existent or more and more restrictive to how much they cover and the scope of their coverage, I think social media is going to play an increasingly important role in local campaigns because they are all we have,” Smith said.
For Boulder, Colo., city council candidate KC Becker, social media technologies like Facebook have become an essential part of her campaign. However, Becker does admit to having some trouble figuring out how to use Twitter.
“I didn’t get on Twitter until I decided to run and honestly it has been the technology that still eludes me a little bit,” Becker said in a phone interview. “It should be a good outlet for a political candidate, but I just find it a little bit overwhelming and a little bit harder to use.”
Some mayors, like Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., have set the bar high with their use of Twitter. Booker has more than 757,000 followers and has engaged his followers by tweeting everything from local policy initiatives to old proverbs.
Lansing, Mich., mayor Virg Bernero, who is running for re-election in November, uses his tweets to promote appearances on Fox and CNN. Bernero campaign manager Patrick McAlvey says occasionally the tweets or videos have gone viral and have been reposted in a number of avenues outside of the Lansing constituency.
“To some extent some things have caught more attention or have been retweeted more often,” McAlvey said in a phone interview. “Some of it has to do with the size of our market, but some videos have gone viral.”
A Cultural Shift in the Media Landscape
The 2008 presidential campaign was a watershed moment for new media technology. West Hartford, Conn., mayor Scott Slifka says years ago during his previous mayoral campaigns, the only people using Facebook were almost exclusively in their 20s. But Slifka, who is in the heat of his own re-election bid, says there has been a quantum leap in the number of people of all ages logging in to social media. This has had an impact on how political messages spread.
“The thing that strikes me is how rapid new media technologies are,” Slifka said. “In a smaller community like ours [about 61,000 people] where the government may not be one that is full-time…you are used to moving at a slightly slower pace. It was really the pace of the printed newspaper.”
Slifka said that if there were three or four newspaper stories about local politics in one week, it was significant. Now, news and rumors spread instantly through the blogosphere and are shared on social networks. Local politicians are not just dealing with a new story in the paper — they are dealing with the fallout from it around the clock.
“I think most local governments aren’t really equipped for that kind of rapid response,” Slifka said.
Perhaps most significant to the evolving shift in local political communication is the sense that social media is starting to fill the void left by downsized news staffs or the complete absence of journalists in smaller communities.
“A newspaper article gives you such a shallow understanding of the events that occurred at City Hall,” said recently elected Tuscaloosa, Ala., mayor Walter Maddox. “A television story is 30 seconds if you are lucky. Through our website, through Facebook, through MySpace and Twitter, we can provide a more detailed and compelling message to the voters of why we are making a certain policy decision.
Maddox said it is important not to post “bureaucratic mumbo jumbo” online because it loses local interest. He said the potential communication capabilities of social media are causing his new government to revamp its online presence.
“It’s literally a town hall opportunity to communicate with people,” he said. “And they get an opportunity to communicate back with you. That’s why it’s important and that’s why it’s going to continue being important.”
Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally he hosts a current affairs news magazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven is a second year graduate student at Michigan State University in the School of Journalism. His research has covered news media bias and framing issues, censorship during war, urban revitalization, renewable energy and climate change.