Last spring Emanuel Pleitez, 26, ran for California’s 32nd Congressional seat in a special election to replace Hilda Solis, the new secretary of labor.

During the campaign, one of Pleitez’s opponents, California State Sen. Gil Cedillo, discovered photos from Pleitez’s Facebook profile that showed Pleitez hanging around with various women at parties. The Cedillo campaign used the photos as the basis for a mailer that was sent to homes in the district. The mailer presented Pleitez as a partier, drinker and womanizer, among other smears.

Pleitez admits the negative attack probably cost him some votes. However, instead of shying away from the photos, Pleitez said in a phone interview that he used the incident to reinforce the transparency of his campaign.

Emanuel Pleitez

“I didn’t take any pictures down,” Pleitez said. “Everything is up on Facebook. If anyone questioned me after, I invited them to my Facebook page so we could go one by one through all my pictures and I could explain where I was and what I was doing. I have nothing to hide.”

Social Media’s Influence on Politics

Pleitez didn’t win the election, and neither did Cedillo. But their race, and its use of Facebook photos, is yet another example of how social media profiles are increasingly becoming a major part of the political process.

Political candidates used to hide embarrassing photos in a shoebox in the closet. But many of today’s younger candidates came of age with social media technologies. As a result, their large online footprint — replete with status updates, videos and photographs — often becomes a political football.

“It is astounding and sort of scary the amount of information that is out there now,” Claire Viall, president of the Cal Berkeley Democrats at UC Berkeley, said in a phone interview. “But it doesn’t prohibit anybody from using social media. It’s become a part of our lives.”

Claire Viall

Viall, 21, joined Facebook when she was in high school as a way to interact with friends before heading off to college. She said that while there are some privacy controls on who can see her profile, it’s really a false sense of control because anybody can post just about anything they want about people on the Internet.

Social media technologies have made it very easy to publish — and find — embarrassing photos online. C.J. Pascoe of the Digital Youth Research project at Berkeley suggested that young people are more willing to put personal information online because they are exposed to social media at a very early age. This can have big implications for those who aspire to political office.

The Election of Audra Shay

In July, Audra Shay ran for chairman of the Young Republicans, a Republican Party organization for 18- to 40-year olds. During her campaign Shay, 38, was accused of endorsing racism as a result of a reply she posted on her Facebook wall. When the story went viral in the blogosphere, Shay immediately scrubbed her Facebook page clean of other potentially damaging items. (She ended up winning the chairmanship.)

Tommy Jardon, executive director of the College Republican National Committee, called the incident a perfect example of how anything posted online can get picked up and sent around the Internet.

Audra Shay

“Someone took a screen shot and even though you take it down or delete it, it now lives forever,” Jardon said in a phone interview.

Running for a national organization seat is certainly different than running for Congress, because the Young Republicans, like any similar group, is governed by internal politics. The public at-large does not have a say. Overall, Jardon, 25, suggested that what young people post online should be considered in context.

“What you did in college or what you did five years ago or even five minutes ago, all has some context and an explanation and merits one interpretation or another,” Jardon said. “The glory of it is that it is still up to the voters to decide.”

Becoming a Public Figure

At age 19, Jason Overman was elected to the city of Berkeley, Calif.‘s Rent Stabilization Board in 2004, and in 2006 led an unsuccessful campaign for a city council seat. He said that young people considering a life in politics need to recognize that running for office is a choice to become a public figure. They should therefore be cognizant that what they post online is public.

“I think there is a fear of what is going to pop up, but I think it is sort of akin to a fear that anyone has in an elected office,” Overman said. “It’s the same sort of fear that older politicians would have had every morning opening the newspaper. I think that’s just sort of a part of public life.”

It may be just a matter of time until social media is widely understood and accepted outside of young generations who consider being online as second nature. Emanuel Pleitez, now a special assistant to President Obama’s economic advisory board at the U.S. Treasury Department, said that, despite the way his Facebook photos were exploited in his last campaign, he would still like to run again. For him, the attack was akin to being baptized by fire — and that people running for office have always been targeted.

“If I were to advise future political candidates, I would say don’t be afraid of what’s on Facebook, and don’t be so paranoid,” Pleitez said. “Just be aware and be ready. It’s better to be transparent, open and humble about whatever your past is than it is to hide things.”

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.