Berkeley City Council candidate and UC Berkeley student Jason Overman believes in affordable housing and wants to restore funding for the city’s police and fire departments if he gets elected this year. He also spends a lot of time making friends on Facebook.com.
However, Overman is not the only candidate who is spending time on Facebook—the popular social networking site that has become ubiquitous at schools across the country—to connect with students before the Nov. 7 election. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing it too, and so are hundreds of politicians all over the United States.
All four Berkeley City Council candidates running in the two districts that cover most of the UC Berkeley community have staked out ground on Facebook.
As e-mail has become an important way to campaign, Facebook is an additional way a lot of candidates are getting their message to potential student voters this year. With more than 9.5 million registered users spread across 40,000 networks, primarily connected with schools, Facebook is the seventh most trafficked website in the country today.
“Facebook is the future of campaigning,” Overman said. “It has taken elections to an entirely new level. There’s nothing like using technology that is popular with the present generation in order to reach out to them.”
Incumbent Gordon Wozniak, Overman’s opponent in the District 8 council race, also has a personal account on Facebook as a UC Berkeley alumni but doesn’t have a political group yet.
“Students are very wired these days,” Wozniak said. “I am thinking of setting up a group soon.”
George Beier, running for the District 7 Berkeley City Council seat, has 207 members on his Facebook site, with which he said he began to communicate with students who lived in the district.
“Students have always been a challenging constituency to reach,” he said. “Facebook allows me to effectively share my plans to reduce crime, revive Telegraph and establish a student district. So far I have been getting some great feedback from them.”
Councilmember Kriss Worthington, running against Beier, also has a group on Facebook.
“Students for Kriss was set up by students working on my campaign,” Worthington said. “I gave them the freedom to create it because I think it’s important to use every kind of communication to answer people’s questions. However it still remains to be seen how successful a campaign method this turns out to be.”
Overman, registered as a UC Berkeley student with Facebook, created the group “Elect Cal Student Jason Overman to Berkeley City Council” two months ago. His site claims 374 members consisting of students from UC Berkeley, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania and several other universities.
“Eighteen- to 25-year-olds have the lowest voter turnout in the country,” Overman said. “Since Facebook has an election section now, I think it’s a great way of letting them know that their vote is important.”
Overman added that although community members often feel that UC Berkeley students do not feel invested in the local community, this was not the case.
“Maybe they don’t have time to attend city hall meetings, but that’s another reason why we need to reach out to them more often,” he said. “I get messages from students on Facebook who want to talk about crime and affordable housing. UCB students are one of the most vulnerable groups in the case of an earthquake in Berkeley. They want to know more about disaster preparedness. We haven’t heard about their concerns before because they were never given an outlet for them. Facebook is helping to bridge that gap between students and the local residents. How can we have a local election and leave out students who form one of the most important sections of our community?”
Anna Thongthap is one of the UC Berkeley students who joined Jason Overman’s Facebook group. Students care about Berkeley neighborhoods issues, she said.
“We have a major investment in what goes on in local politics, but we don’t always know how to make a difference,” Throngthap said. “When campaigns target voters, they often write off our generation as not worth their effort. We are seen as a generation that doesn’t vote. But we vote when we are given a reason to, and believe me, I am voting this year.”
Alan Lightfeldt, a political economy of industrial societies major at UC Berkeley, has indicated his support for District 7 candidate Beier on Facebook.
“I joined the group because I know George and I have supported him all along,” he said. “I want to show people where I stand.”
There are others, like UC Berkeley freshman Elizabeth Hopper, who are skeptical about Facebook as a vehicle for political action.
“The campaigns that are up there haven’t changed my mind about whom I want to support because there’s not enough information about the candidates and their policies,” she said.
According to Beier, students started joining his group after student group meetings organized by the ASUC and others.
“It’s a more environment-friendly and cost-effective way of campaigning,” he said. “The bad thing about Facebook is if I spend more time on it, it takes away time from the other parts of my campaign.”
Worthington, who said he has helped more students get appointed and elected to city positions than any other Berkeley councilmember, said that students have contributed immensely towards his campaign this year, and his Facebook site is an extension of that effort.
“It’s their ideas I look forward to hearing,” he said. “The enthusiasm they are bringing to my campaign is just amazing. Getting young people involved is one of the first steps towards creating a better community.”