First, it’s important to say that Tweets are not votes.
Facebook is not the electorate.
Instagram is not the road to inauguration.
But candidates for governor in Maryland are spending time on social media, hoping to influence the discussion of who should lead the state for the next four years.
Because that’s what social media is good at. It’s about creating a sense of community around an idea or an issue, reaching agenda setters and slipping into the consciousness of anyone online. It’s good at getting attention, if not reaching the heights of illuminating debate.
It's also good at testing out ideas and themes, and finding what is effective. What messages convince people?
Sure, there are forums featuring 10 candidates at a time on Climate Change. Candidates are door-knocking and holding fundraisers. A few have testified in Annapolis during this General Assembly session or given speeches outside the State House.
Social media campaigning is something different. So for a bit of fun – to each his-or-her own definition of fun – I spent several days scrolling through the social media postings of the many, many candidates for governor, both real, longshot and delusional.
Here’s some of what I learned.
Democrat Tom Perez can change a flat tire. There’s evidence on his Instagram account.
If that's a staged rescue, the person behind it deserves an award for creativity. But I think the cinderblock he used to chock the front tire speaks to its genuine nature. I just wonder where he found it.
Republican Kelly Schulz spends time in Ocean City with her family, and her grandkids call her Yaya. She's making policy announcements too, about parental choice in schools and the impact of climate change proposals on small businesses.
But there's proof on her Twitter and Instagram accounts of an old political tactic, bouncing babies for the camera. But, as it is her grandson it's hard to argue that it's anything but genuine.
There’s Literally Dan Cox, which explores “the statements of Maryland Delegate Dan Cox, in his own words.” It’s the work of Schulz’s campaign and is unmerciful in poking at the only candidate in the primary endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
"The Maryland House of Delegates voted 125-0 to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. But Dan Cox walked out on the vote. Why?"
Just for good measure, it smacked down the Frederick County Republican's running mate, adjunct Naval Academy professor Gordana Schifanelli, when she retweeted and endorsed a couple of ridiculous statements by a Donald Trump parody account.
There’s serious stuff, to be sure.
“As Governor, I’ll expand #Medicaid coverage to more residents, control the cost of prescription drugs, and improve health outcomes for our communities through a holistic approach that focuses on raising your quality of life."
There’s disagreement over public policy, like Rushern Baker III's criticism of the judicial decision to push the primary from June to mid-July as a court challenge over district maps is sorted out.
“This latest mess, which seems to happen on a regular basis here in Maryland, is a stark reminder that we need to reform the process by which our congressional and legislative district maps are chosen,” Baker wrote on his Facebook page.
And there is the ridiculous, like a promise by independent candidate Kyle Scefcik – an MMA fighter approaching the campaign from the right of ultra-conservative Cox – to change the weather if elected.
It could be a funny take on political promises, but in light of the candidate’s decision to drop an album and embed with the trucker convoy in D.C. I’m really not sure.
Social media is all about unfiltered campaign access to your phone, your tablet and your laptop. None of this stuff goes through the filter of news reporters covering the campaign, who try to sort out the theater and the stunts from the actual policy disputes and the strategy of a campaign.
Perez and fellow Democrat Wes Moore are way out front of the others in terms of sheer reach.
Perez, the former U.S. labor secretary and national party chairman, has 232,400 followers on Twitter, 25,000 followers on Facebook and another 3,494 on Instagram, Facebook's photo-sharing platform.
Moore – a nationally known author, combat veteran, anti-poverty crusader and entrepreneur – has 61,000 followers on Twitter, 34,000 on Facebook and another 31,000 on Instagram.
Comptroller Peter Franchot rounds out the top social media presence with 10,498 followers on Twitter, 47,000 on Facebook at 1,784 on Instagram. For bonus points,
Franchot’s campaign has the only campaign account I could find on TikTok, the video-sharing platform, but it has no content and no followers.
At the other end of the spectrum are candidates like John Baron, the nonprofit executive running in the Democratic primary. He has 587 followers on Twitter, 214 on Facebook and just 108 on Instagram. He’s also traveling around the state in a “mobile campaign office” that appears to be just him.
Perez, Moore and Franchot are at the top because of the combined numbers. Other candidates, notably former U.S Education Secretary John King, have a strong presence on one platform but very little presence on the other platforms.
I listed the Twitter numbers first because these are highly sought-after media users. About a quarter of U.S. adults use Twitter, according to a Feb. 22 summary of current research posted by the digital marketing agency Omnicore.
About 75 percent of users in the U.S. are college-educated, and 38 percent are between 25 and 38 years old. About a third of Americans who use Twitter earn $75,000 or more, while 29% earn between $30,000 and $50,000.
Almost half of Twitter users check their feed at least once a day. It's also heavily use by journalists, so a candidate knows there's a good chance that somebody who cares will see the campaign effort on Twitter.
So, what you get is a smart, affluent, young audience motivated to keep up with the news.
Don’t discount that Facebook number, though. A Pew Research Center study last year found that seven out of 10 American adults use Facebook, and half of those check it several times a day. No other social media platform comes even close to that kind of engagement, and it cuts across party lines.
Full disclosure here, and that is Meanwhile, in Annapolis is hosted on Bulletin, a newsletter site owned by Facebook parent company Meta.
Even fuller disclosure, all that reach comes with a caveat for political types. A 2019 Pew study found that 59% of Americans distrust the platform as a place to get political news. It’s another characteristic that cuts across party lines.
Instagram has a different audience in the U.S.
According to Hootsuite, a software management tool, about 37% of adults in the U.S. use Instagram. They tend to be a bit younger than Facebook users -- more than half are 18 to 29, more often are women. It is the most popular platform with Hispanic adults, and about 40% of Black Americans use it compared to 33% of white adults.
Almost half of Instagram users live in urban areas, compared to about a third in the suburbs.
A few of the candidates are also active on LinkedIn, a platform intended for professional use.
These numbers don’t reflect the value of the individual candidates' ideas, just the strength of one element of their campaign.
Some of what you see in these social media channels is to be expected. Endorsements. Campaign event announcements. Inspirational videos. Fundraising. Running mates. Comment on the news of the day.
There was Doug Gansler, the former Maryland attorney General, down at the Harriet Tubman Memorial in Church Hill.
There was John King testifying over Zoom on a school voucher proposal in front of the General Assembly in Annapolis.
There was Wes Moore on the streets of Annapolis, walking to the state Election board with his running mate, Aruna Miller, to file his candidacy papers and chat with people along the way. The video made it onto all of his channels.
We are now four months from the Democratic primary in Maryland.
If you haven't seen them already, television spots will soon start appearing. Both Moore and Franchot have announced big media buys, as reported by both Maryland Matters and The Washington Post. The others will follow when they can.
And as the primaries get closer, you're likely to see more in-person events. There will be plenty of time to get a close-up view.
But if you plan to vote in one of the primary contests, remember that the ideas and themes you'll see in the next few months are now being tested on social media. If you are interested in how politics works, pick out the ones that strike you on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
What resonates today on these platforms will make it to the wider public by July, and the most effective posts and videos and images will make it through to November.