Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Campaigns mine Twitter, Facebook & other social media profiles for votes

Joe Green is president and co-founder of NationBuilder, a company that helps campaigns and organizations connect with voters using social media and voter registration records.
Joe Green is president and co-founder of NationBuilder, a company that helps campaigns and organizations connect with voters using social media and voter registration records.
Courtesy of Joe Green

Listen to

Download this 2.0MB

So, you clicked "like" on that Facebook ad showing Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom and his dog? Guess what? You "opted in" to his 50th District Assembly campaign and very likely began  receiving Facebook updates.

There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately about how companies mine the personal information of social media users to deliver targeted advertising. That strategy is now increasingly being used by political campaigns.

These new political tactics marry the social media platforms you love — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — with public voter data to tailor campaign messages.

Colin Delany, founder and editor of e.politics, a blog about social media campaign tactics, says the strategy is fairly simple: "The most important thing a campaign can do on social media is get its supporters active on social media."

That's where NationBuilder comes in. The L.A. company works to economically turn your social media activity into votes.

"We power your web site, and your data base and all your communication channels: e-mail, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter,  canvassing, phone banking," said Joe Green, co-founder and president of NationBuilder. "It's not about having a separate online strategy and offline strategy, its about having a single, integrated communication strategy."

Green is steeped in both politics and social media. At Santa Monica High, he was student rep to the local school board. He then studied politics at Harvard, where he roomed with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. That relationship would lead to a Facebook app for advocacy groups called Causes, which Green founded.

Green talked about NationBuilder from the company's office overlooking Pershing Square in downtown L.A. It's in a scruffy old building now occupied by creative firms. The second-floor windows look down over the Metro station and, as Green spoke, drummers from what's left of the Occupy movement could be heard from across the street.

"We think Nationbuilder is good for democracy because it helps winning be about not how much money you spent or how many TV ads you put up, but how well you communicate with voters," Green said.

Part of Green's political education involved studying under community organizing guru Marshall Ganz, and working for the 2004 John Kerry campaign in New Hampshire and Arizona. At the time, Green was a fan of Friendster, the social networking site, and he saw potential for a political equivalent. He started NationBuilder in 2010 with filmmaker Jim Gilliam, backed by funding from Silicon Valley angel investors including Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame.

When you interact online with a campaign using NationBuilder tools, they match your e-mail or online persona to your voter file. NationBuilder even invites the public to "claim your voter record" and provide your e-mail address to them.

"With Facebook and Twitter, we can start to pull information about what you're interested in. This is all things that people have explicity made public," Green said.  "We're not pulling stuff that's not public."

It is possible for a campaign to track your "like" and harvest your email address if it's on your Facebook public profile,  however, most people don't include email addresses in their public profiles, Green said. Campaigns can use the geographic information in your Facebook account to match your name with your voter record.

However, the way most people get  on the email list of  a campaign that's using Nationbuilder, Green said, is to to go to that campaign's website and interact with it using Facebook Connect, which asks your permission to send email.

Candidates using NationBuilder tools won three of the state's closest elections last month,
including Eric Swalwell's upset of 20-term incumbent Congressman Pete Stark in Northern California.

A local success was in the two-Democrat race pitting Assemblywoman Betsy Butler against Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom to represent the 50th Assembly District.

Butler, an incumbent, was better-funded and endorsed by establishment Democrats and West Hollywood's LGBT groups. Bloom was the underdog, not well-known outside his Santa Monica base.

Bloom's campaign manager, Brian Ross Adams, says his candidate wasn't being taken seriously in the primary.

"Richard was being laughed at, he wasn't even mentioned in articles," Adams said. "People were thinking he was an afterthought."

During the primary campaign, Bloom's team spent $3,000 on Facebook ads, which target users based on criteria advertisers select, such as their profile, age, "likes," comments, and zip code. So the district's older Jewish Facebook users saw ads of Bloom with his mother. Russian or Persian users got Bloom ads in their own languages. The goal was to establish the candidate's likability.

"And this wasn't policy-centric Facebook ads," said Adams, "this was a picture of his dog."

The continuing online campaign steered people to Bloom's YouTube channel to watch a CNN Anderson Cooper "Keeping Them Honest" segment critical of Butler's role in halting a bill that would have made it easier for schools to fire abusive teachers.

That video — an edited two-and-a-half minute version of the original report — got nearly 2,000 views, which was significant given that Bloom's winning margin was only 1,705.

Expect similar engagement tactics in the Los Angeles mayoral race. Underdog Emanuel Pleitez  is using NationBuilder. Kevin James is using a similar system, and his campaign manager, Jeff Corless, said the campaign would aggressively be using technology and social media tools to learn what they can about voters.

Frontrunner Councilman Eric Garcetti is also using NationBuilder. Let's say you Tweet a mention of him. Your Twitter photo and profile pop up on Garcetti's campaign page, even if you intended no endorsement.

"It's just an app that shows your Twitter profile," said Garcetti's social media advisor, Jeff Millman. "Essentially it just allows people to make a page on our site for them."

While the Garcetti campaign has the ability via NationBuilder to match voter registration files to social media accounts, Millman declines to say if they are actually planning to do so. That's a strategic decision, he said.

Millman said the website is set up to engage only with those people who "opt-in" by interacting with the campaign online, and that people can also use the website to encourage or block contact.

"We allow the user at all times to opt out," Millman said.

E-politics editor Colin Delany is seeing these tools being adopted in ever-smaller races.

"The Obama campaign used a good bit of this Facebook data mining this year, but once the tools are developed then they can spread up and down the political food chain," he said.

You might think it creepy that your Facebook profile is being linked to your voter record, but campaign strategists have long targeted voters for direct mail ads using available data — such as magazine subscription databases.

"Everything looks new, but almost everything we do online has an analog in the traditional political world," Delaney said.

Joe Green of NationBuilder puts it another way: "Community organizing hasn't changed much since Moses, but what we're able to do is to make it more accessible and to happen faster at larger scale."

And that's what social media political campaigns call engagement.