SALISBURY — Within the past few years, politicians have begun courting voters in 140 characters or less on Twitter and by making friends on Facebook.
As more and more people sign up for the two social media platforms, state lawmakers in Maryland and those at the local level have begun using Facebook and Twitter to campaign and rally public support around themselves.
On the Eastern Shore, however, the embrace of social networking has moved a bit slower than in more urban areas.
Of the state delegates and senators who represent the Lower Shore in Annapolis, Republican Sen. Richard F. Colburn is the only one who uses both Facebook and Twitter politically.
“To me, it’s almost mandatory to use Facebook and Twitter in 2012 because a good deal of your constituents use Facebook and Twitter as a way to communicate,” Colburn said. “Privately, I’m old fashioned and I still believe the best, most sincere form of constituent communication is an old-fashioned letter delivered by the U.S. mail. But … we have to be available to communicate with everybody, depending on whatever mode they choose to use.”
Colburn began using Facebook during the 2006 election cycle and Twitter more recently as a way to learn about the concerns of the 125,000 people he represents in the General Assembly and to let them know what he is working on.
James F. Klumpp, professor of communication at the University of Maryland, College Park, said one of the reasons Facebook and Twitter are sparsely used by lower-level elected officials is because their campaigns and year-round work still include an element of individual contact that officials in higher offices lost a while ago.
“I think the fact that there is still that personal dimension left in the local campaigns has in some sense made it less important for them to immediately develop the social media aspects of their campaigning,” Klumpp said.
As younger voters become more engaged in local campaigns and not just presidential elections, Klumpp said, it is likely mayors and county council members will have to begin utilizing social media.
“I think they are going to have to do more and more of it with this young electorate,” Klumpp said. “This is the way you are going to meet them.”
More conservative area
One of the reasons Colburn offered as to why elected officials throughout the Lower Shore do not use social media as much as national-level politicians is because the area is more conservative and has many older residents who do not utilize Facebook and Twitter.
“I’d say the Eastern Shore as a whole is more conservative, more laid back and still does a lot of things the old-fashioned way,” Colburn said.
While Colburn is the only state official from the Lower Shore to use both platforms, other elected officials, including Republican Del. Mike McDermott, Democratic Del. Norman Conway, Democratic Sen. Jim Mathias, and Republican Del. Charles Otto all have Facebook pages they use to varying degrees.
“I did use [Facebook] during the campaign,” Otto said. “My challenge is I don’t have adequate Internet service at home because of the rural area I live in — that limits when I can utilize that type of thing.”
During the 2010 campaign, Otto said he used a Facebook page to post photos of events and speeches as well as let voters know when events were scheduled and where he stood on the issues.
While Otto said he may use Facebook year-round in the future or even create a Twitter feed, he would rather engage in one-on-one contact with his constituents.
“I prefer to show up at events and see people and talk to them personally,” Otto said. “I can also be reached on the phone pretty regularly.”
Change in 2008
Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and the campaign finance division of the Maryland Board of Elections, said he began seeing a change in how candidates communicate with potential voters during the 2008 presidential election.
“Before, communication was basically pushed out by campaigns through direct mail or telephone calls at high cost and high volume,” DeMarinis said. “[Social media] was an explosion for the lower candidates that do not have the millions of dollars, but who run on shoestring budgets. They use these [for] free to communicate with voters.”
Because of the popularity of Facebook and Twitter by those seeking office in Maryland, in 2010, the Board of Elections began requiring anyone using a social media platform to include an authority line with the name of their campaign treasurer.
While the use of social media has expanded rapidly at the state level, it has only begun to trickle down to county and city council members, mayors and county executives throughout the Lower Shore.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan uses the Twitter handle @OCMayor to inform his 834 followers about upcoming events in the resort town. Meehan, however, said he rarely uses it to discuss political issues.
“I really don’t use [Twitter] as a political promotional tool,” Meehan said. “I’ll use it for events taking place in Ocean City or things I’m doing that visitors might be interested in. It’s really just to bring awareness and attention to Ocean City.”
Keeping it private
Meehan also has a Facebook page, but said he doesn’t use that for a professional capacity and prefers it to stay a private way to keep up with family and friends.
Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt is one of the area politicians who shied away from social media in the past, but is beginning to use it as a way to communicate with younger voters, who may not be engaged in more traditional forms of communication.
When Tamara Lee-Brooks was hired as the county’s new public information officer in January, Pollitt said he wanted to launch several social media pages aimed at engaging more county residents.
Since then, Lee-Brooks has added links to the county executive’s Facebook and YouTube pages from the county’s main website. The County Executive’s office is also hoping to add a Twitter feed in the upcoming months.
“The old saying about teaching an old dog new tricks keeps coming to mind,” Pollitt said. “Although I was kind of reluctant to come around to all of this, I’m looking forward to being more relevant to the younger crowd.”