In the minutes immediately after a gunman opened fire on the south steps of the Texas Capitol last week, one of the best sources of information was State Sen. Dan Patrick’s Facebook page.
“An individual came into my Austin Senate office today acting strangely, staff called security, moments later shots fired on Capitol steps,” the Houston Republican quickly posted. The afternoon brought several more updates.
On top of — or perhaps because of — the fact that Patrick has his own radio show, he is one of the, if not the, most plugged-in legislators in Texas. In April 2009, the National Council of State Legislatures found that he had the most Twitter followers of any state legislator not running for a higher office in the country.
A number of politicians prefer Twitter. State Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, an early adopter, was, at one point, operating three accounts on his own. Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams used Twitter to announce his intention to run for Kay Bailey Hutchison's Senate seat, and he's been known to personally respond to questions tweeted at him.
However, with its room for extended notes, video capacity and aggregated commenting, Facebook is Patrick’s preferred platform — if used correctly, it allows politicians and their supporters a way to engage in ways other sites don’t. “Facebook is where you can really give people content and contact,” he said. “My goal on the site is to make it the most informative page on public policy. Part of the problem with government is people feel it doesn’t reflect them. On Facebook, I am able to give people an insight into their government and they give me insight and feedback into what’s important to them. They can see that I represent them.”
After hearing how President Barack Obama used social media in the 2008 elections, Patrick sat down with staff members to learn about the tools available to him. He set up a Facebook account and rapidly developed a following during the 2009 legislative session.
Even with just a cursory overview of his page, a user quickly notices that, in addition to a lot of policy, his Facebook friends and fans get a lot of Patrick. They hear the sad news of having to put his dog down. They get updates on his first grandchild. When Patrick tries his hand at water coloring, his “friends” get to see the results — and he doesn’t hold back. “My 3rd picture suddenly took on a look I had not intended nor did I know how to paint,” Patrick posted about an attempt at a Peter Max-style rendering of a classic American icon, “The face of Jesus appeared on what was to be the Statue of Liberty when I erased some of the paint on the face. I have felt God in my life many times, this took my breath away.”
Perhaps needless to say, Patrick operates his Facebook page almost entirely on his own, spending (by his estimation) one to two hours each night starting at around midnight. When it’s the actual politician putting in the time on the site (which is not usually the case), you can really get an insight into the person behind the campaign sign.
Sam Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, has been looking into Facebook. “Overwhelmingly,” he said, “it’s more about people presenting themselves honestly than presenting themselves in a positive light.”
It may, for example, be of little concern to voters that state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, is a fan of real estate wunderkind and reality TV star Chad Rogers or financial planner Jose Feliciano's books.
“Are these domains an opportunity to go and be another person, or an opportunity to spin yourself and provide a vehicle for promoting yourself, or is it just another avenue of being yourself?” Gosling asked. “All our research points to the last of these.”
The public seems to respond to the personal touch. Democrat Bill White has by leaps and bounds the most Facebook “fans” (over 31,000) of any of the gubernatorial candidates. Rick Perry is a distant second at over 20,000. Kay Bailey Hutchison has 13,500 fans and there are over 9,000 fans of Debra Medina. Democrat Farouk Shami has just over 1,000 “fans” but over 2,000 “friends.”
Like Patrick’s, the White Facebook page is more-or-less all White, all the time. White spokeswoman Katy Bacon said she isn’t concerned about, when it comes to message control, letting out too long a leash. “I don’t worry about my candidate,” she said. “I can understand why other campaigns might be concerned about that, and we really want as many people as possible to connect directly to Bill.”
As a result, fans get updates on White’s late-night reading — “I just returned from Dallas, and am about to go to bed, listening to a book on tape, Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August” — and notes on his interest in his personal history — “I could use some help find (sic) lost relatives. My middle name, Howard, comes from the family of my great, great grandfather, William Z. Howard, who settled in Navarro Co. in the 1850s, and who is buried in the Dresden Cemetery.” In less than 48 hours, one of White’s fans had found, photographed and sent him a photo of his great, great, grandfather’s grave.
“It’s a two-way street,” Patrick explained. “It’s not just about disseminating information to people. The most valuable part to me is getting feedback.”
Campaigners swear by Facebook’s effectiveness for reaching voters. "Facebook is the best at reaching the younger audience," said Helen Sutton, the campaign coordinator for Democratic Railroad Commissioner candidate Jeff Weems. "I think we're learning all the time how to better use it."
Bacon says White staffers read through user comments and reach out to convert commenters into volunteer workers “all the time.”
However, there’s little proof that success in generating Facebook followers translates to success at the voting booth. Not all Facebook users are voters — Patrick says a significant portion of those he interacts with on the site don't even live in his district. Despite a wealth of Facebook “fans,” in recent polling, White is still trailing both Perry and Hutchison in potential general election match-ups. This might be due to the fact that many politicians are known quantities long before a citizen plugs their name into a Facebook search. “I don’t know if in the world of politics it would provide you with stuff you don’t otherwise know,” Gosling said. “It’s a very unique group of people who are already in the public eye.”
Despite the time spent under the public microscope, the Internet is littered with the remnants of profiles of Texas politicians who gave Facebook a try and then gave up — or entrusted it to a staffer for rote procedural updates. State Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, hasn’t posted anything on her public "fan" page since January 2009, though her staff has kept her personal page active. Gubernatorial hopeful Hutchison’s campaign's posts refer to her in the third person — as in, “Become a part of Kay's grassroots team. Click here to find a campaign headquarters!” Her primary opponent, Perry, does his own tweeting, but leaves most of the Facebook duties to others.
“There are some who just aren’t tech-savvy or they aren’t interested in this stuff,” Patrick said. “It’s not for everyone. Each legislator has to make their own decisions. But once you wade into the water, you’ve got to go all the way in.”