Activists in the ground war for public opinion about Lexington County’s proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase began their campaigns in part by establishing beachheads on social networking sites like Facebook. Campaigners used their pages as low-cost vehicles to interact with residents, distribute talking points and even coordinate their campaign efforts.
Oct. __, 2014
When conservative activist Talbert Black learned more than a year ago that Lexington County Council might seeks a sales tax increase to pay for roads and other projects, he created an online petition.
Then he created the “Lexington County Citizens Watch” Facebook page to mobilize opposition to the Nov. 4 referendum.
Mike Green built the “Stop penny tax in Lexington” Facebook page.
And Tiffany Boyce Heitzman and Earl McLeod, who head the Penny for Pavement campaign, established that group’s beachhead on Facebook as well to present the potential benefits of the projects the tax increase would pay for.
Social media quickly became the early campaign ground in the push to raise the county’s sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent. It’s no surprise: The Pew Research Center says that nationwide as of January, 74 percent of adults who went online used social media.
Both sides have poured hundreds of dollars and many hours into their Facebook pages, hoping to build a network of supporters and distribute talking points that will resonate with voters.
“My goal is to have a place where we can have all the information laid out for the public, and if they want to vote for it, fine,” said Green. “If they don’t want to vote for it, fine.”
Social networking sites have become critically important to political campaigns over the past decade, said Jonathan Kopp, lead interactive strategist for the Glover Park Group, a strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C.
“It used to be that one neighbor would talk to another across the fence. They’d be sitting in their backyards, and one would talk to another,” said Kopp. “Now they’re spending increasing amounts of time online, and social media has become the new backyard fence.”
Chapin resident Robert Lang said he stumbled upon that backyard fence in mid-September, when he first saw a Penny for Pavement yard sign and rushed home to search Facebook for more information. Lang said he built his understanding of the issue by perusing and interacting with pages from both sides.
Both sides used Facebook early to coordinate efforts and deliver key points while they raised funds for more traditional campaign media like signs, T-shirts and radio ads.
Green said he started the “Stop penny tax in Lexington” page as something fun in his spare time, a place where he could post news articles and his concerns about the increase, which he and other conservative activists are calling “millions for pork.” In addition to links to articles and original posts, pictures of the group’s fliers, homemade T-shirts and yard signs are frequently found on the page.
Black said one goal has been to keep a somewhat uninteresting topic on the forefront of voters’ minds.
“It’s a big task to get out to the voters and let them understand how detrimental it’s going to be and how full of false promises it is,” Black said.
The message has hit home with Lang, who now helps with the anti-increase campaign, sharing the pages’ Facebook posts and passing out fliers to warn other residents about the increase.
McLeod and Heitzman use the Lexington Penny for Pavement Facebook page to detail the potential benefits. There are links to articles and opinion pieces about the tax, pictures of Lexington traffic jams, information on how to vote and brief “penny thoughts” that address specific issues.
One goal, Heitzman said, has been to clear up misconceptions about how much the tax increase will cost, how long it will last and what the money can be used for.
Rich Bolen, a Lexington lawyer who helps run Green’s page, said that like all campaigning, much of the Facebook effort is about spin.
“Is it a penny for pavement or $300 million for pork?” Bolen said. “People are going to make the decision in the voting line, so you’ve got to get a sound bite in their head that can influence them for five minutes while they’re making their decision.”
Rick Gagnepain, who runs a Lexington pizzeria, doesn’t read the newspaper or watch local news. But he checks Facebook throughout the day, including the pro and anti-increase sites, posting thoughts and questions to both sides.
“Facebook is changing the debate a little bit because it’s getting information out to people who don’t have time to look for it,” Gagnepain said.
Neither side is certain of how much Facebook alone will affect what happens at the polls. In mid-October, Green and Black’s anti-increase pages had roughly 1,000 followers combined, and the pro-increase Penny for Pavement page had nearly 900. Those numbers pale in comparison to the county’s roughly 160,000 registered voters.
Hear Talbert Black explain how important social media is to keeping people thinking about the penny sales tax.
Listen to Black talk about how social media has brought interactivity to the anti-tax campaign.
Hear Green talk about how his Facebook page took off and its results.
Listen to Earl McLeod talk about the importance of social media to the Penny for Pavement campaign.
But “likes” aren’t wholly indicative of a Facebook page’s success, said Glenda Alvarado, an assistant professor at USC who teaches a class on social media engagement. Some people will visit the pages without liking either, she said, adding that a better indication is whether people who see the information share it to their friends, some who could be swing voters.
“It’s a big snowball effect,” Alvarado said. “Your friends see it, and then your friends of friends see it. It’s a big, increasing circle.”
Both sides have embraced that concept, counting on their Facebook followers to share their message, both on Facebook and with their friends in person. Green said he isn’t concerned about the number of people liking his page as much as that the ones there are fired up about the issue and want to spread the message.
“Jesus only had 12 disciples,” Green said, flashing a grin, “and now the Bible is everywhere.”