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Making sense of social media in Pa.’s high-profile races

  • By Tom Riese/WVIA News
Wilkes University assistant professor Ben Toll said, just like in the analog world, candidates are trying to meet potential supporters where they are - online. Campaigns try to understand who their target audience is and then they make decisions based on social media engagement accordingly.

 Jim Vallee / Getty Images / IStockphoto

Wilkes University assistant professor Ben Toll said, just like in the analog world, candidates are trying to meet potential supporters where they are - online. Campaigns try to understand who their target audience is and then they make decisions based on social media engagement accordingly.

With just under three months until Pennsylvania’s Nov. 8 election day, at least four candidates in the commonwealth’s high-profile races for Governor and senator are highly visible online.

But even if you aren’t on popular platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, social media can be hard to ignore. Candidates and their campaigns are using social media to grab the attention of potential supporters and translate online popularity to financial support and real-world votes.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported on Democratic nominee for senator and current Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman’s social media strategies, including a move to remind voters that his rival, TV-celebrity Mehmet Oz, has spent many years living in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, Oz’s campaign has been regularly posting a “Basement Tracker” on social media, counting the days since Fetterman has held an official campaign event. Fetterman suffered a stroke in May.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, the Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, gestures to the cheering crowd during his primary night election party in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

And in the race for governor, Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee and current state senator, was recently lambasted for using – and paying consulting fees to – the far-right social media platform, Gab, which is based in Clarks Summit, PA. Mastriano eventually deactivated his account on that site in July.

Valerie Schrader, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Schuylkill, said the fact that political campaigns are spending more time on the web makes a lot of sense. She said about half of Americans rely on social media for their news consumption, and political campaigns are paying attention.

According to a Pew Research Center study from 2021, 48% of Americans find their news on social media either “often” or “sometimes.” Schrader said that number is down from about 53% from the previous year, which she credits to news coverage of the 2020 election. However, across the board, those polled weren’t necessarily better-informed.

“Only 17% of those who said they got their news on social media were considered highly knowledgeable about politics,” Schrader said. “You can compare this to 45% who got their news from news websites and apps and 42% that got [news] from radio.”

In this photo made on Friday, March 4, 2022, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, center, visits with people attending a Democratic Party event for candidates to meet and collect signatures for ballot petitions for the upcoming Pennsylvania primary election, at the Steamfitters Technology Center in Harmony, Pa. Fetterman is running for the party nomination for the U.S. Senate. The irreverent, blunt, 6 feet 8, tattooed Fetterman faces the Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party committee backed U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and Malcolm Kenyatta, a second-term state representative from Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Ben Toll, an assistant professor of political science at Wilkes University, said the average American attention span, as well as a trend to leave behind cable television could also factor into why political campaigns are so active online.

Toll said that most people under the age of 40 are probably using streaming services instead of cable. Additionally, political campaigns don’t have to jump through as many hoops to get information out on a social media page compared with funding a TV ad campaign. Instead, candidates and their teams can just click “post.”

“And that’s what social media allows me to do,” Toll said. “It allows me to control the communication, it allows me to control the message, how I want to speak to people and the way that I want to engage with folks.”

It only takes a few seconds between the time a supporter sees what a candidate shares – be it an image, a meme or information – and when they decide to reshare that post with their own followers. Toll said it’s clear that some campaigns are posting in hopes that their content will go viral, or rapidly spread across social media platforms.

“Our attention span for depth as a general public is not there, and we want something that we can understand easily, something that we can understand quickly,” Toll said. “ [Memes] are trying to help us see good versus bad, right versus wrong in an instant. And if I can get viral by dunking on someone else, I’m winning.”

Meeting supporters where they are online

Manuel Bonder is the press secretary for Josh Shapiro’s campaign for governor. He said campaigns are at a huge disadvantage if they don’t harness the power of social media.

“To just getting folks organized to join up and knock on doors or make phone calls, social media is at the center of that work,” Bonder said.

Bonder said that grassroots volunteer groups for Shapiro’s campaign are organizing on Facebook. One group has about 17,000 members, which Bonder said translates to more in-person support for the campaign.

Matt Rourke / AP

Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, poses for a photograph with an attendee during his visit to a car show in Carlisle, Pa., Saturday, May 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Mehmet Oz’s campaign declined a request for an interview while the representatives from the Mastriano and Fetterman campaigns did not immediately respond for comment.

Toll said, like in the analog world, candidates are trying to meet potential supporters where they are online. Campaigns try to understand who their target audience is and then they make decisions based on social media engagement accordingly.

“Mastriano is probably going to be much more active on Facebook than he is on Twitter or TikTok,” Toll said. “We would expect Shapiro, who’s appealing to a younger audience, to be more active on the social media that younger folks use.” Toll added that Facebook is largely becoming a social media platform of choice for older users.

Mastriano has openly stated that he won’t speak to traditional news outlets. He has generally only accepted interview requests from conservative or religious media organizations, and his campaign has denied press access to legacy media staffers.

However, Mastriano is very active on Facebook, using the site’s live feature to speak directly in real-time to his supporters. Almost daily over the last two weeks, he has gone live, talking to about 230 or so supporters. On at least two occasions, Mastriano went live during phone interviews with Philadelphia area talk radio stations. Today, he went live during an in-person interview with a conservative talk radio station in Fulton County.

The campaigns of Mastriano and Oz are also using Truth Social, the platform founded in Oct. 2021 by Trump Media & Technology Group. The Shapiro and Fetterman campaigns are not using the site.

The platform launched in Feb. 2022 as a tool for former president Donald Trump to share Twitter-style posts after he was banned from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, among other platforms, in 2021. Those restrictions went into effect when Trump shared disinformation in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol.

How social media engagement translates to national funding

Penn State Schuylkill’s Schrader wanted to look at whether or not online engagement in support of campaigns is coming from people who can actively vote in the commonwealth.

Schrader took a random sample of Fetterman’s Facebook posts and checked to see if those engaging were based in Pennsylvania or another location. She said the sample shouldn’t be taken as statistically significant as a research study, but she did find interesting results.

“I estimated about 47% of the people were probably living in PA if they listed where they were located,” Schrader said.

However, Schrader said getting noticed outside of the state isn’t a bad thing for a senate race. She called it a “double-edged sword.”

“When you kind of cast a wide net with social media, you’re not necessarily going to be able to do that targeting advertising that you would be able to do if you were specifically focusing on a particular demographic,” she said, adding, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to get national attention, which could be useful for your campaign.”

Dr. Jean Wahl Harris, a political science professor at the University of Scranton, said that a national audience on social media might be good for campaign coffers.

Harris referenced a Philadelphia Inquirer article from July that analyzed national funding for the Fetterman and Oz campaigns since May’s primary.

“Oz has been getting 75% of his campaign money from outside of the state of Pennsylvania,” Harris said. “So obviously people outside the state have been looking at this US Senate race.”

Harris said Fetterman’s campaign is pulling in about 66% of funding from outside of the commonwealth.

Here’s a breakdown of the high-profile candidate’s social media use across several popular platforms:

Tom Riese / WVIA

The campaigns of four top candidates in Pennsylvania’s races for senator and governor use several social media to engage potential voters. Pictured are the campaign account’s number of followers as of Aug. 10, 2022.


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