Local Politics and Social Media – A Case Study

One of the more surprising effects of Facebook and other social media is the impact it has had on our political environment. We have seen its impact on all levels of government, from local to international. The best example of politics and social media is, undoubtedly, the success of protests like the one seen in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak, and the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests that are slowly branching out to other parts of America. Local politics have also been impacted by the onset and popularity of social media. Especially with election season gearing up, it’s been no surprise to see ads running on Facebook for various political candidates, or more activity coming from the Facebook accounts of politicians looking for re-election.

When I worked for a campaign group based in Albany, one of my jobs as a researcher was to look for Facebook and Twitter pages, to see if there was anything that could be used for or against somebody in a campaign. These pages were often very tightly policed, probably run by a campaign manager; or they were privatized. There have been–and still are–news stories about politicians saying stupid things on social media and being penalized for it, and it was interesting to see how local politicians, as well, have internalized this and took great strides to make sure the same would not happen to them.

Social media, however, can easily be gamed. During the last election cycle, Assemblyman Tim Gordon ran for re-election in New York State. His opponent, Steve McLaughlin, actually hired out people to follow him around with a video camera to try to get some damning video evidence of him to use in a campaign. He got that evidence very, very close to the election. Gordon was videotaped removing McLaughlin’s signs from a lawn that was not his own. The video clip made it to YouTube, Facebook, and the news companies before Gordon’s campaign had time to react.

A rough back and forth went on between the two campaigns. Gordon claimed that the signs were on his own property, and property belonging to his neighbor who repeatedly complained about McLaughlin’s signs being placed there. He further accused McLaughlin of stalking him during the campaign. McLaughlin’s campaign manager claimed that the neighbor in question was in a nursing home, and the owner of the home allowed McLaughlin to place his signs there. He claimed he knew nothing about the signs placed on Gordon’s own property, and that Gordon should not be trying to take the moral higher ground, having been caught on camera.

Ultimately, Gordon lost re-election. The election was a close one to begin with, but the issue with the sign removal put everything over the top. Even with Gordon’s story eventually hitting the media–and the statement from his neighbor corroborating his story–the video had made a huge impact on the election. The video was hardly half a minute long, but it sealed the fate of Gordon’s career in the assembly, and perhaps even his political career in general.

Oftentimes, local politics gets overlooked, in general. Many people don’t give their state politics and such the same weight as the national politics. The former Assemblyman Gordon, incidentally, is an example of this; he was ushered into office on the same wave that Barack Obama made in politics, and was booted out in the midst of a rabid anti-incumbent fervor, when most of the attitudes in both circumstances were largely with the national scene. Still, it is important to understand that Facebook can impact local campaigns as much as they can national or international ones.

Alexandra Merges
Information Studies Senior (Graduating Fall 2011)


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