The changing face of politics in the Facebook era
March 30, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Updated March 30, 2010 at 10:31 p.m.
Chelle Nickerson, a 23-year-old barista running for mayor of Victoria, learned the hard way about the power of social media.
Shortly after a March 17 Advocate article ran announcing her filing as a write-in candidate, people began flocking to her personal Facebook page, which at the time was open to the public. The online version of the Advocate story blew up with negative comments about what people saw on her profile, from her photos to her status updates. Shortly after, Nickerson changed her profile to private.
"At first I regretted having to set my page to private, but it was a move I made for my own safety and sanity. For anyone wanting to run for political office, Facebook can be a danger and what you put out there can come back at you, which I'm realizing now," she said. "And now I'm being bombarded with friend requests, but I'm only accepting people I know. I'm not paranoid, but more apprehensive."
On the plus side, however, Nickerson has found another way to reach out to potential voters while keeping her private life, well, private. She has created a Facebook fan page called Chelle For Mayor, as well as a Twitter account under the same name, that is geared specifically toward her campaign. So far, she has 122 fans on Facebook and five followers on Twitter.
"For my main voting audience, which is 18-to-30-year-olds, it's the best way to keep in touch," she said. "My main objective, even more than winning this election, is getting more young people to vote and getting them involved. Politicians using social media has definitely increased youth voting and participation. It's so hard to get kids away from their computers and cell phones, and so this is a way to bring it directly to them."
Although at times social media can be a double-edged sword, politicians have found it an invaluable tool. The importance of using the Internet and social media for political campaigns has steadily been increasing since 2004 when Howard Dean ran one of the first grassroots Internet campaigns, according to Mindy Finn and Patrick Ruffini, who run an online political consulting firm in Washington.
"The Internet isn't a line item in a campaign budget anymore. It's not something you have to pay for, underneath catering and radio ads. It has reorganized the way Americans do everything - including elect their leaders," the two wrote in a Jan. 24 Washington Post article. "Candidates who would have had no chance before the Internet can now overcome huge odds, with the people they energize serving as the backbone of their campaign."
It's also reorganized how candidates raise money, according to Finn and Ruffini. John McCain was one of the first to harness the Internet for fundraising for his 2000 campaign. Presidential candidate Ron Paul, who represents the Crossroads region in Congress, raised $4 million in one day in 2007. In the last two weeks of the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, Scott Brown raised $12 million.
In addition, many political analysts credit President Barack Obama's early embrace of social media in helping him cinch the 2008 election. Currently, the White House's Facebook page has 500,000 fans and its Twitter account has about 1.7 million followers.
Among other politicians who have embraced social media are Rep. John Culberson of Texas, who is extremely active on Twitter, as is Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, according to Chris McCroskey, co-founder of Tweet Congress, a Web site that encourages politicians to tweet with their constituents.
"Over 80 percent of the time, Rep. Culberson is using the @ reply. This means that he is actually having a conversation with the people that sent him to Washington," McCroskey said in a guest editorial for technology Web site ZDNet.com. "Not only does he communicate with constituents, he also lets his followers know exactly where he stands on the issues of the day."
Of course, while current politicians and political candidates are using social media to their advantage, one of the biggest dangers in the trend lies with future politicians who may not realize that what they post today could come back to haunt them, Nickerson said.
"I've learned from my openness and that sometimes being inhibited is a good thing," she said. "You need to be sure of what you post and more importantly, who can see it."
Even President Obama warned students with political ambitions to be wary what they put on Facebook now.
"I want everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook, because in the YouTube age whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life," he said to high school students in Virginia before his nationally televised September speech to students, according to Bloomberg.com.
Despite dealing with some negative press, however, Nickerson is determined not to change her personality, both online and in real life, throughout her campaign.
"I'm still going to be myself and say what I want, but now I'm going to be more careful about who can see it," she said. "One of the reasons I'm doing this is to show young people that you can still be who you are and do things like this. You can be who you are and run for mayor."