Rep. Jesse White campaigns on Facebook far more than colleagues, records show
Nobody in the state Capitol has used Facebook quite like Jesse White.
The four-term representative from Cecil has outspent every elected official in Harrisburg — governors, Supreme Court justices, senators — in direct campaign payments to the social media company, according to the state's online database that tracks back to 2000. His campaign paid Facebook nearly $11,000, more than a quarter of every dollar donated for his 2012 general election, records show.
White, 33, a Democrat, used Facebook and local news sites as part of a social media blitz. He posts pictures of the playoff beard he grew for charity, links to news stories he likes and musings on policy platforms, often promoting an image as a hard-charging protector for people impacted by natural gas drilling.
That same medium has led to heavy scrutiny, including an ongoing investigation by two district attorneys, because White last month admitted to using Internet aliases on Facebook and other sites to bash his critics and drilling industry supporters.
“It all has to do with trust,” said Aren Platt, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which encourages all its candidates to get on Facebook right away with open, honest postings. “Used poorly, it can blow up in your face, and you can miss an opportunity. Used effectively, you're using the most powerful tool we have in our campaign arsenal right now.”
White did not return interview requests last week. A message to his Facebook page went unreturned.
“Sometimes when you stand up for what you believe in, fight the fights no one else wants to fight and ask the questions no one else will ask, you become a target of those who want to silence you for all the wrong reasons,” White posted on May 30, the day he admitted using the fake names. It got 26 responses, many supportive and a few deriding White.
White's campaign payments went directly to Facebook, which several election consultants called unusual. Most of the politicians who use Facebook enough to spend money on it will pay consultants to design an online campaign, and those consultants are the ones who pay Facebook and other sites, experts said.
It's not uncommon for candidates working on a small budget — maybe with advice from a young family member — to go all-in on social media, spending personal time on a mission to build an online following, several consultants said.
“There's a lot of peer pressure to have the most Facebook likes, and Facebook does a great job of building that peer pressure,” said Jordan Lieberman, president of CampaignGrid LLC, a Montgomery County company that designs online campaigns for candidates and interest groups.
Facebook allows a candidate or company to promote posts online for only $15, ensuring they're shown to more than 3,000 users, said George Potts, the Downtown-based director of social media at Brunner Inc., an advertising agency.
Users can target Facebook ads by ZIP codes, age, hobbies and other personal traits. They can promote posts to certain types of people while keeping them invisible from the rest of their audience, ideal for political candidates, Potts said. Facebook will charge more for the clicks those posts get, but any user can set daily and weekly budgets.
Campaign spending on Facebook usually comes in at about 5 percent of a candidate's budget in Pennsylvania, experts said. Advisers often want more Internet emphasis, spending closer to 10 percent, they said.
White spent more than 28 percent of his budget on Facebook in 2012. He spent another $3,500, 11.7 percent of his donations, on Facebook in 2011, a non-election year, records show.
“If I'm heading a campaign that's spending $1,000 a month on Facebook advertising, one of my first priorities would be hitting the stop button. And I'm an advocate of online advertising,” said Mark Harris, a consultant who works with Republican clients as a managing partner at Cold Spark Media, Downtown.
It isn't clear whether White spent campaign money on promoting his fictitious characters. If he did, it would still probably be legal because of broad permission candidates have to spend on promoting their issues, said Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia campaign finance lawyer who works mostly with Democrats.
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.