by Claire Trageser | KPBS
edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource
San Diego’s social media echo chamber has been reverberating more than usual this mayoral election. For the first time ever, all the major candidates have heavy presences on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. Candidates post about everything from endorsements to their pets with a fervor topped only by their supporters who wage online battles on their behalf.
Campaign staff and candidates told KPBS/inewsource that social media is an easy and cheap—if sometimes time-consuming—way to engage voters, answer questions and show a bit of personality.
Ming-Hsiang Tsou, a San Diego State University geography professor, believes that Twitter buzz can help predict electoral outcomes. He designed an app to measure candidates’ followers, mentions and retweets and says in the near future, these metrics might be a better electoral crystal ball than polling numbers.
While campaigns aren’t quite ready to use their Twitter buzz to plan their victory speeches, they are taking social media seriously. If Twitter profiles and Facebook pages are like the booming voice of the Wizard of Oz, here the campaigns allow a quick glimpse at the men and women behind the curtain.
With his tongue in his cheek, former City Attorney Mike Aguirre says the centerpiece of his social media strategy is his basset hound Winston, who tweets from the account @Winston_Aguirre.
“He got so angry, so upset, that we weren’t making good use of social media that he opened his own account,” Aguirre joked.
Making what might be one of the city’s most unusual career changes, Charles Langley, a former executive with the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, runs the dog’s account. Sample tweet: “Today is national cat day [GASP!] #sdmayor”
— Winston J. Aguirre (@Winston_Aguirre) October 29, 2013
Aguirre also tweets from his own account, @Julesan1, which he named after Jules, his middle name and his father’s name.
“For me personally, what I try to do, is use Twitter to shape my message to the media,” Aguirre said. “I try to plant the seeds of where and what I’m going to be bringing up ahead of time.”
A campaign Twitter account, @Mike_4_SD_Mayor, is run by a law student who clerks in Aguirre’s law office.
Aguirre said someone from his campaign is always looking at Twitter and alerts him to interesting tweets.
“It seems like sometimes people on Twitter are communicating with each other but forget that other people are listening,” he said. “Members of the media forget other people are watching and start expressing their points of view.”
Heverly couldn’t give an exact breakdown of how often Alvarez posts himself because he said it varies each day.
When campaign staff post for Alvarez, they make sure they’re tactful and stick with the campaign’s message, Heverly said.
The campaign doesn’t pay to promote Twitter posts, but has done some Facebook advertising.
Heverly said the whole mayoral campaign has been fun, but for him “social media is the icing on the cake.”
“It’s such a short election cycle, so we have to do as much as possible to get information out there,” he said. “The coolest part about it is engagement, getting people involved.”
He said the campaign has plans for “Get out the Vote” social media posts leading up to election day on Nov. 19.
City Councilman Kevin Faulconer tweets from his own account, @Kevin_Faulconer, about 50 percent of the time, with his campaign spokesman Tony Manolatos and council staffer Matt Awbrey filling in the rest.
Their rules for tweeting from Faulconer’s account are “don’t say anything stupid,” Manolatos said. “We follow the leader. Kevin’s a nice guy, he’s not a bomb thrower, so we match his tone.”
Faulconer also has a mayoral Twitter account, @Faulconer4Mayor, which acts as a wire service for the campaign, Manolatos said. The account is run by the campaign’s intern Albin Soares, who also posts on Faulconer’s Facebook page and Instagram account.
“I made it very clear early on that we need to have presence on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram every day,” Manolatos said. “Our biggest challenge is letting folks know who Kevin is. One of the ways to do that is social media.”
In addition to tweeting campaign news and retweeting messages of support, Faulconer posts on themes like #guineapigmondays, where he posts photos of his household pets, and #throwbackthursdays, featuring childhood photos.
The campaign occasionally pays to promote Facebook posts like this one, but doesn’t pay for Twitter promotion.
“If you use it right, social media lets people know who you are as a candidate and a person, quickly and broadly,” Manolatos said.
Manolatos said Faulconer has come to appreciate the power of social media, like when he wanted to speak out against Tony Krvaric, the chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego County, who called mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher a “sociopath” on Twitter.
“Kevin said to me, I’m going to refute that right now on Twitter, we can’t have that kind of talk on Twitter,” Manolatos said. Faulconer tweeted that San Diegans want vision, “not divisive rhetoric and name calling,” although he did not respond directly to Krvaric’s tweet.
“We didn’t have to be on the phone with a reporter, didn’t have to send out a press release, it was just bam, bam, we’re done,” Manolatos said.
Former state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher tweets from his @NathanFletcher account about 50 percent of the time, with campaign spokeswoman Rachel Laing filling in the rest.
Fletcher sometimes signs tweets written by him with his initials, but not always, Laing said. She added that Fletcher always knows what the campaign is posting.
The campaign also has a Facebook page, which Laing uses to post photos and respond directly to voters’ questions.
“We’ll get private messages saying, ‘I just got this terrible mailer about you, is it true?’” Laing said. “It’s an opportunity to engage with people who wouldn’t have access otherwise. We try to respond to every message.”
But the campaign stays away from using Fletcher’s accounts to argue with opponents.
“If people are genuinely asking questions, and not just trying to engage negativity, we’ll respond,” Laing said. “But a lot of people say they’re asking a question when they’re not really asking a question.”
The campaign doesn’t pay to promote posts on Facebook or Twitter, but does run Facebook ads, she said.
“I feel that anything that gives you an opportunity to communicate with people, especially if you don’t have to spend money on it, is a good thing,” she said. “And it’s good to see what other people are talking about. These are the people you’re going to be governing if you win, so why wouldn’t you avail yourself of the opportunity to see what they’re thinking about and talking about?”
But Do Voters Care?
KPBS/inewsource used the Public Insight Network, an American Public Media tool that allows news organizations to collect input from local sources, to ask San Diego voters if they care about mayoral social media. Most respondents said they do not follow the candidates on Facebook and Twitter. But for a few, tweets and Facebook posts do matter.
“Every time I see an endorsement on social media it makes me think harder and harder about my vote and who I should support,” wrote Jason Bercovitch.
“It is THE most important way to connect with 20-40 year olds (and a few of us older folks too),” wrote Janella Davidson.
Zachary Tanton wrote that he uses social media not to form opinions, but to keep up on candidate news.
“I believe social media is an outlet to help you stay on top of current events related to a candidate you’ve already determined to represent your values,” he said. “I’m not sure it will necessarily sway a voter’s decision to vote for a particular candidate.”
And Grev Levin wrote about an alternative strategy that should put spokespeople like Laing and Manolatos on alert.
“I follow mostly their minions,” he said. “I find it to be far more informative.”