When conservative activist Talbert Black learned more than a year ago that Lexington County Council was considering a penny-on-the-dollar 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.
Sales tax opponent Mike Green built the “Stop penny tax in Lexington” Facebook page.
And sales tax supporters Tiffany Boyce Heitzman and Earl McLeod, who head the Penny for Pavement campaign, established that group’s beachhead on Facebook as well to tout the benefits of the projects the tax increase would pay for.
Social media quickly became the early campaign ground on the Nov. 4 ballot measure, which would raise Lexington County’s sales tax to 8 percent from 7 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 are trying 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,” Green said. “If they don’t want to vote for it, fine.”
Social networking sites have become critical to political campaigns over the past decade, said Jonathan Kopp, lead interactive strategist for the Glover Park Group, a strategic communications firm in Washington.
“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 headed to Facebook for more information. Lang, who said the county deserves no more of his money, said he built his understanding of the issue by perusing and interacting with both sides’ pages.
He now helps with the opposition, sharing the pages’ Facebook posts and passing out fliers.
“If we simply roll over and let the government take whatever they want from us, pretty soon they’re going to take it all,” Lang said.
Both sides used Facebook early to coordinate efforts and deliver key points while raising money for more traditional campaign media like signs, T-shirts and radio ads.
Green said he started the “Stop penny tax in Lexington” page for fun in his spare time so he could post news articles and his concerns about the increase, which he and other conservative activists call “millions for pork.” There also are T-shirts and yard signs on the page.
McLeod and Heitzman fill the Lexington Penny for Pavement page with links to articles and opinion pieces about the tax, pictures of Lexington traffic jams, information on how to vote and brief “penny thoughts” on 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 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 newspapers or watch local television news. But he checks Facebook throughout the day, 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.
In mid-October, Green’s and Black’s opposition pages had roughly 1,000 followers combined, and the Penny for Pavement page had nearly 900. That compares to the county’s roughly 160,000 registered voters.
Both sides are counting on their followers to share their message – online and in person. Green said he isn’t concerned about the number of likes as much as those fired up about the issue who want to spread the message.
“Jesus only had 12 disciples,” Green said, flashing a grin, “and now the Bible is everywhere.”
This article was produced as part of this semester’s J-471 Intermediate Reporting & Production class at the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications.