STOCKTON -- A defining moment in Anthony Silva's campaign for mayor last year came in a text message that went out en masse to undecided voters.
Silva consultant N. Allen Sawyer hit send on the message about the same time absentee ballots arrived in mailboxes. It said: "Learn the shocking truth behind Stockton's rising crime." In a flash, 16,000 targeted cellphone users received the alert.
That message marked a shift in the evolution of Stockton politics.
The text linked to a 30-second YouTube video blaming incumbent Mayor Ann Johnston for a spate of gold chain robberies and misspending at City Hall that caused a quarter of police to be laid off.
Within 30 minutes, about 4,000 people had watched the video. Silva went on to win on a shoestring budget despite Johnston's massive war chest funding her traditional race -- absent a social media strategy.
"I never had anything that had that level of impact," said Sawyer, noting the power of social media's emerging role in political campaigns. "If anybody doesn't think it's a weapon, they're crazy."
For decades, candidates in Stockton, and communities like it across the country, printed up and mailed out thousands of glossy brochures. They ran costly television and radio advertisements in addition to rallying supporters to spend hours of their weekends bravely knocking on doors.
This paradigm began to change in national politics when presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004 recognized the potential of online media, at the time using static websites and MySpace.
Four years later, candidate Barack Obama seized its power to reach and mobilize voters through Twitter.
Social media has now taken hold as an effective tool for local candidates attempting to unseat their incumbent rivals. Elected leaders can engage constituents in an ongoing dialogue, making them feel like they're part of the political process.
Council members in Stockton such as Moses Zapien and Michael Tubbs, a Stanford University graduate and former Google intern, have tapped into the power of social media. Zapien posted photos of his Christmas morning spent at the St. Mary's Dining Room.
For all the positive uses of social media, there are pitfalls, said Heather LaMarre, a communications researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Too often, politicians rush into the new terrain of the "twittosphere" and other platforms without first thinking through a strategy. They feel the pressure to have an online presence, saying, "Everybody's doing it -- so should I," said LaMarre, who will publish research early next year on the use of social media in politics.
Her research found that baby boomers comprise the fastest growing group of social media users, contradicting the common belief that it is the domain of youth.
Crossing the line of what's appropriate, LaMarre said, local politicians too often tweet from closed-door meetings or lay bare their unbridled emotions in Facebook posts that might later prove to be embarrassing. She compared it to handing someone a microphone that's live 24 hours a day.
"They might as well be on reality TV," LaMarre said. "Is that the most diplomatic or professional way to handle your emotions?"
Stockton has felt these growing pains and has begun to address them. In their final meeting of the year, council members adopted policies restricting the use of Twitter and Facebook from their iPads during meetings to avoid repeating some foibles.
But there is no denying the power of social media in shaping political discourse when it's used correctly.
Lee Neves, a Stockton-based consultant, said he encourages his clients to use traditional methods and spend some money on social media.
In addition to working with Sawyer to run Silva's campaign, Neves last year managed Zapien's victory over Councilwoman Diana Lowery. Zapien seized upon Facebook in a way Lowery didn't, Neves said.
He pointed to a single Facebook post on Zapien's page that resonated most, congratulating the San Francisco Giants on the World Series victory. Despite having no direct relevance to Stockton, Neves said it worked to Zapien's advantage.
"Humanize -- make your candidate more relatable," said Neves, adding that residents also hunger for dialogue and to be heard, which social media is made for. "If they want to rant, let them rant."
A paid advertisement or free post on a candidate's Facebook page might spread exponentially from one "friend" to another, or it may even go viral.
Today, people listen to satellite radio, which is free of advertisements, and they record their television programs, allowing them to skip commercials. But look around the next time you eat out and notice how many people are scrolling through their cellphones, Neves said.
"To me, that's value right there," Neves said. "Any campaign that doesn't have a social media aspect to it is going to get lost in the dust."
In his race against incumbent Dale Fritchen, Tubbs used social media to organize supporters, raise money and spread his message, said Nicholas Hatten, a Stockton consultant running Councilwoman Dyane Burgos Medina's campaign.
Tubbs held online town hall meetings via Google+, where he could "hang out" with supporters and answer questions in a real-time video chat, said Hatten, who believes it is ultimately good for the democratic process, despite potential for misuse.
"It's a whole new way of transparency and opening up a dialogue," he said.
Sawyer said he's not sure if Silva would have lost to Johnston without a social media component to his campaign, but it was clear that Silva couldn't afford a traditional campaign, so they had to be smarter.
Sawyer won't talk about strategy for current races he's managing, such as Councilman Paul Canepa's bid for county supervisor and Pat Withrow's run for sheriff. Social media is already playing a role.
It allows a newcomer to put his or her name and message out, taking away the built-in advantage incumbents have for name recognition, said Sawyer, who has produced dozens of short videos for both of his current clients gearing up for 2014 races.
The online videos are much cheaper than traditional media. Sawyer said he can target key demographics and collect data on how many people click a video and watch to the end, making it worth the investment.
"It used to be TV, radio, mail, walking -- that was your campaign," Sawyer said. "It's changed so much."
Original headline: Social media an emerging 'weapon' in political campaigns
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