Local politicians behind on social media

Facebook, Twitter not widely used by politicos

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By NICK MORONI

It's no longer politics as usual. Social media has changed the way political campaigns operate, and, to an extent, how government functions; nonetheless, Austin Weekly News found that many local officials have not fully embraced this trend.

There are 15 candidates running for state legislative offices in the various districts within Austin this November, and 11 of them have at least one social media account. However, a review of those candidates' accounts revealed only about one-third of them regularly post updates and communicate with voters and constituents.

Some incumbents created accounts last year, or several months ago, and neglected to add, say, regular Facebook "status updates" or Twitter "tweets."

A handful of candidates, however, say they see an intrinsic value in social media for campaigning and communicating, and regularly utilize it for such purposes.

"It's a bridge-building opportunity," said state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th). Ford has 5,000 Facebook "friends" (other users who are part of a social network), a relatively high number. However, his page is inconsistently updated. He posted eight messages this month, and none in September.

"It's hard to do 'em all," he said, laughing. "I do everything as far as Facebook. I respond to e-mails and letters." Ford's Facebook friends receive blast e-mails with job ads, as well as event announcements.

Globally, Facebook hosts 500 million users, and there are around 80 million registered Twitter accounts, according to an estimate in June by the marketing research company ComScore. Facebook is a digital social networking site, and Twitter is a constant stream of updates, limited to 140 characters.

A lack of time, unfamiliarity, and the socio-economics of certain areas are reasons local politicos have been slow to embrace the practice, several candidates suggested.

"A lot of times political figures either don't have the time or the knowledge to use the necessary tools," said Princess Dempsey, an independent candidate running for 7th District state representative against incumbent Karen Yarbrough.

"There are language and poverty barriers," said Jeremy Karpen, a Green Party candidate for 39th District state representative, adding that an inclusive approach must be taken.

Dempsey has accounts on Facebook, MySpace (a networking site that preceded Facebook), Twitter, and her website links to a campaign video on YouTube; however, two of the accounts are privatized, so visitors cannot look at her content without her permission, and her "tweets" are infrequent, and sometimes difficult to comprehend.

"Scammed by the Government!! they wont expect food or water.ask for money. because Money helps WARS.... wake up..." she tweeted last year.

Yarbrough actually has a wider web presence, but she has not posted an update on any of her accounts since last December.

"In many cases, its 'I think, and then I say,'" said Karpen. "What they are putting on the Internet in many cases does not go away."

Karpen, whose accounts on Facebook and Twitter are updated almost daily, said he would nonetheless like to see a code of ethics put into place for state officials who use social media. He opposes incumbent Toni Berrios, who has no accounts, and the telephone number on her website connects to City Clerk Miguel Del Valle's mayoral campaign headquarters (an aide said they are sharing an office).

On the municipal level, 24th Ward aldermanic candidate Donielle Lawson credits social media networking for the initial attention her campaign received.

"I went from 350 Facebook friends to over 3,000 in just six months," she said.

Twenty-fourth Ward candidates Vetress Boyce and Valerie Leonard also have a number of social media accounts and are using those services in their campaigns.

Leonard, in particular, has carved a wide digital footprint, with accounts on EveryBlock, an open-forum discussion board for community members; Scribd and Blogspot, two Web publishing services; and on Facebook.

Almost all of the city council members representing Austin have some social media presence, even if it is an account that has been neglected for months, except for Ald. Ed Smith (28th), who doesn't even have a personal website.

On her Facebook page, Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) has 860 friends, announcements are posted daily, visitors are interacted with, and the site is public, so anyone can view the content.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) has not updated her Facebook page since July when she announced that she was "Keeping it Real!"

Ald. Sharon Dixon (24th) actively used Twitter during her unsuccessful Democratic primary bid for 7th District U.S. representative; however, she abandoned the medium in February after losing the race.

The review suggests that many local candidates and politicos have either bucked the trend or are not maximizing the communicative potentialities, which were realized by many after the success of President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.

The campaign used 15 social media networks to reach millions of supporters, according to the blog Dragonfly.com, a practice that is now being adopted in large-scale politics.

Ford said that social media could also be used beyond campaigning, as tools of "transparency" and "accessibility."

"People will begin to trust government," he said.

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