The arrival of Facebook, Twitter and numerous social media outlets has, in a sense, re-molded society as we now know it. Just as we look at the late 1980s through the early 2000s as Major League Baseball’s “steroids era,” referencing a period of time when numerous players were thought to be using performance-enhancing drugs, so too may we look back on this time in history as the “era of social media.”
Like it or not, for better or worse, social media is here for the long haul.
It has completely changed the way that we digest everything. There is an efficiency and connectivity to a Facebook feed or Twitter timeline that is inherently convenient above anything else around. It has altered the way we consume news, communicate with friends and family and the way we politic.
This has resulted in a considerable evolution of our political landscape.
For politicians, this has required a substantial amount of adaptability. Whether because of, or despite, President Trump’s infamous use of Twitter, social media has injected itself deep into the veins of politics, demanding updated strategies and an unprecedented glass door of accessibility to elected officials.
In Arkansas’ political arena, few are more prolific on social media than Republican state senator and 2022 lieutenant governor candidate, Jason Rapert. Sen. Rapert is regarded by some as the Donald Trump of Arkansas, as it pertains to social media, a distinction that he does not avoid entirely nor completely endorse.
“You said it, I didn’t,” Rapert says behind a grin. “Look, Donald Trump is Donald Trump; I’m Jason Rapert. Do we share the characteristic that we take up for what we believe is right? You bet.”
There are certainly legitimate comparisons to be made. Each of them carries an authenticity that leaves no question of who is behind the keyboard penning social media posts, and both are not ones to shy away from social media discourse; raising the dividing curtain to open themselves up to their constituents. Rapert frequently joins in on the debates in the comments on his posts, either with words of encouragement or criticism (the latter of which you have likely heard about). He responds to direct messages himself, often the same day.
For Rapert, his social media tactics have catapulted him to, at times, national relevance, often with an asterisk of “polarizing,” another descriptor that the senator does not fully embrace, nor totally dismiss. His social media activity has made him much more of a household name around the state than most of his colleagues in the Arkansas legislature.
Political philosophies aside, Rapert carries a tremendous amount of weight on social media. As of this writing, over 27,000 people follow his “Sen. Jason Rapert” Facebook page. For reference, the official Facebook page for the Republican Party of Arkansas has 12,000 followers; the Democratic Party of Arkansas has 14,000; Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office page has 12,000; Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin’s has 13,000.
In this era of social media, politicians yearn to get in front of people’s daily dose of timeline scrolling, and Jason Rapert has put himself in front of more than double the eyes of his colleagues and counterparts, many of whom outrank him by office held.
“It’s important, if you’re going to be in an elected office, that you speak into the issues of the day and public officials have a very easy to do that now in that you can actually go out and speak to people and let them hear you personally and what you have to say,” Rapert says of social media. “So, my strategy is simply to utilize the tools that are available to advocate for people.”
Rapert speaks to the positives that have come from his frequent use of these online social platforms that have generated substantial results.
In 2016, Rapert says that he was approached by the Trump campaign to make Facebook Live videos. One particular video, where Rapert wore a camouflage shirt and filmed at his farm on the Arkansas River as he urged viewers to vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, reached approximately one million people in less than a day. To date, it has had around 7.5 million people reached, 2.5 million views and over 100,000 shares.
While this is his most wildly successful video of all time, it was not his first nor his last. Rapert has posted dozens of self-filmed videos on his Facebook page where he talks directly to his audience in a personal and intimate way that generates a level of connection that can only be matched by a physical, face-to-face conversation. It’s worked, as most of them have thousands of views each.
“I noticed that as I did more [videos], you’d have 500,000 people watching,” he says. “And I’m out here in the middle of central Arkansas, paying nobody anything at all and I’m just talking.”
In the past, a politician would have had to pay thousands of dollars to reach the same amount of people with either a TV or radio ad, but in a less personal way. Social media places both in-office and aspiring elected officials right on the social media timelines of their constituents, between the posts of friends and family, not bookended by other commercials.
But with this also comes significant challenges, especially for local legislators. Without a full-time staff in the senate, local officials in the state are often of sole responsibility for what comes in and goes out from their social media.
“I’m finding that I’ve got people that will go to social media and direct messaging with a very serious matter,” Rapert says. “We don’t like to see those things get lost in the mix because, you never know [what could happen]. I literally get hundreds of emails regularly, plus then you’ve got people that will send a direct message [on social media]… That is another area that you’ve got to monitor as an official to make sure you’re not missing anything.”
Then there is the emboldened nature of behavior on social media. Just as some political leaders may feel more confident with engaging in the provocative online, so too are ordinary citizens – sometimes crossing hard lines in the sand.
“People will write things on social media that I believe they never would say if they were sitting across the table from you and having an interaction,” Rapert says. “And this is not only related to politics, I believe that we’ve got to figure out a way for people to understand a much greater level of civility and decorum in the way that they interact with each other. We have seen young people bullied and intimidated to the point that in some cases… They’ve taken their lives. This is something that doesn’t need to be overlooked.”
Rapert has documented a number of what law enforcement deems as credible threats against both he and his family, as have a number of politicians around the state and the country, regardless of party.
“I still believe there’s a lot more good people in the state of Arkansas and in the United States of America than there are bad people,” Rapert says.
Reed Brewer, communications director for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, sees similar challenges regarding this access that social media provides.
“It puts more responsibility on… The behavior that the elected official shows and displays when he or she is conversing with a person who now has access that maybe they didn’t have before,” Brewer says. “Before, when you’re engaging in person or at limited events or a town hall… There might be a certain set of behaviors that you should have. But I think that that isn’t always applicable to social media, and I think it should be. But also in the other sense of that… People I think are oftentimes too aggressive toward their elected officials even.
“I don’t know necessarily what we’re accomplishing through that kind of action. I don’t think that [kind of] organizing is fruitful; I don’t think it’s smart; I don’t think it’s inclusive. And I think if anything, it just makes it less inviting and less approachable for somebody who is just wanting to get off the sidelines and maybe become an activist or something. I think that’s kind of the downside of social media is this kind of crowd mentality that can generate on both sides.”
And for Brewer, who is tasked with communicating a unified message and approach in a state where being a Democrat can mean a number of different things, it can involve being the string that binds people together to eliminate some of the disjointedness that social media can exhibit.
“I think in the past the party has been seen as a secondary to the candidates,” Brewer says. “But what we have to do is figure out a way, and strategies and social media is really important for that, to become kind of the broadcast entity for our camp. And so on social media, that means making sure that we are sharing content that, from no matter where you are in the state, you can find information about the candidates.
“But we’re also always directing them back to our website, to our email list, to our candidates’ social media, making sure that they know that the Arkansas Democratic brand is something. That every time they see that logo, that they know that this is something that they want to read more on.”
And Brewer urges candidates to not only involve the positives of social media in their campaigning tactics, but to also not fall into the trap of only utilizing these new age strategies – to not forgo some of the more classic, tried and true methods of connection.
“We have to be able to balance knocking on doors, phone banking, sending mail, and doing social media,” Brewer says. “I think sometimes, especially on the left, we just allow ourselves to think that social media can replace a lot of that. I think social media, being totally honest, is the easy work of a political campaign. And I think that too often, Democrats just think that they can get on Twitter or Facebook and join these groups and that type of thing. But that activism is limited, right? Because you can only convert so many people, especially in a state that has limited network connectivity.”
Brewer also cautions for candidates and elected officials from being something that they are not on social media. What worked for one may not work for all. “Figuring out how to use social media to best represent your campaign and your candidate, I think is the best way to do it,” he says.