Student Council, Student Government Association, Student Union – whatever name you remember it by – a student self-governing body is a staple in nearly every higher education institution in the nation.
Depending on the university, being elected to serve on this committee often represents the achievement of a leadership status guaranteed to sparkle on a post-grad resume. Some might be in it for the scholarship benefits. Perhaps in a small community college, the winner was just popular enough that a majority of students recognize his or her name on the ballot. In some cases, though, childhood dreams of a one-way ticket to the White House — similar to Ben Platt’s Payton Hobart in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series “The Politician” — lead to student election campaigns full of cutthroat drama and ruthless ambition.
On average, most elections at Arkansas schools aren’t documentary-worthy, but they are changing in a way that makes us take a second look at technology, the history of student government and the ways in which these student-run campaigns resemble those of actual senators, representatives and presidents.
A few weeks ago, I happened upon the Instagram account @vision.ar.21. Their bio, found at the top of their profile read “Warren – Anderson – Patel – Koc” followed by a link to a voting platform. It didn’t take me long to put together the pieces that these four University of Arkansas students had put together this Instagram account as a way to campaign as a ticket for the 2021 student government election, containing a president, vice president, treasurer and secretary. They won their election, but prior to that, I talked to Coleman Warren, the now University of Arkansas student body President-Elect about their profile and the other methods they’ve used.
“We do have a Facebook page, we have a Twitter, we’ve posted on our LinkedIn, but I would say Instagram is the one we’re most concerned about people engaging with and helping spread awareness,” Warren said. “We actually have a team of people who are worried about content strategy and then we have an actual graphic designer, an actual photographer, an actual videographer, like we have really talented people and we delegate accordingly. That’s allowed us to make an Instagram page that’s creative, aesthetic, meaningful and based on the ballot numbers, it has really engaged the campus in a new way and in a good way.”
As of April 2021, the page has over 700 followers. “The vibe we want to send off is that we’re approachable, and that we’re here to serve you and we’re trying to reach out to you.”
The ticket also created a GroupMe account. GroupMe is a mobile group messaging app. They have a team of people that reached out to up to 25 people per day directly on the app asking if anyone had questions or needed anything. It didn’t work the way they hoped it would, though.
“We’ve contacted over 2,500 people directly… it’s very personal, but we haven’t gotten that many questions. So, it’s been really great for engagement, but there’s something else that we need to find a solution to as far as making students feel comfortable approaching us with their problems,” Warren said.
The ticket also put time and effort into traditional methods of campaigning like and took advantage of the events orchestrated by student government, including participating in a town hall and debate process.
“It’s very formal … Usually those things don’t engage a lot of people because there’s such a commitment for students to go and watch the whole town hall or debate,” Warren said.
Those events coupled with handing out flyers, placing banners on greek houses, and putting up yard signs still didn’t, to Warren, make the biggest difference. Social media did.
“I think what matters is visiting, talking to people in large group settings and your social media presence — those are really what I think won the election,” Warren said.
As far as the shift in campaigning methods go, some schools started long before others. At Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, a big change took place right before current student government president Ellie Mayberry enrolled in school there.
When Mayberry was a senior in high school, one of the tickets at A-State decided to run with an entire staff. She said that up until this point, the president and vice president would run on a joint ticket, and then once in office, would select a staff.
Now, similar to the UARK Vision ticket, many students at A-State run with the expectation that their ticket should consist of not only president and vice president, but also chief of staff, cultural diversity director, public relations, secretary and parliamentarian. As expected, another expectation is that they’ll campaign using social media platforms.
“This year our campaign even made a TikTok account because that is where you are going to reach lots of voters now. Ground game is still very important in a campaign, and students recognize when you are out campaigning at 7 am every morning and working until late at night, but a strong social media presence can definitely make or break a campaign,” Mayberry said, echoing Warren when it comes to the importance of being on these platforms.
She also mentioned, like Warren, that it isn’t just about being online, but being perceived as sophisticated and, well, like you know what you’re doing.
“People like to see a strong logo, high-quality pictures, and high-quality videos. It sends the message that the campaign is well-organized and can really encourage voters. A strong video can really build a lot of hype for the campaign too and is often one of the most shared posts,” Mayberry said.
She said that beyond creating profiles, she also learned how to create selfie face filters for Instagram and Facebook so that people could use them when posting. For her, “no form of campaigning can be taken for granted!”
Jamaal Lockings, the current president of Student Government Association (SGA) at the University of Central Arkansas, said in his time being involved with SGA, he’s observed the shift in campaign methods personally. For his own campaign, he utilized flyers, but prioritized Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.
“I’ve noticed that many [campaigns] have reverted to using social media for what would normally be a simple flyer or banner. This is easier and a lot more cost effective,” Lockings said.
His other theory for digital campaign effectiveness is that students are already spending so much time online.
“Campaigning has become more about face time … it used to be all about huge banners and graphics everywhere, but with everyone’s attention span so short, it’s best to continue bombardment on social media, where you know their eyes are glued,” Lockings said. “It also is quick and easy to share on their pages or stories, which allows for more and more people to see it.”
The other argument for social media usage is accessibility, but it tends to go both ways.
Lockings said that campaigning, when done right, can be virtually, which is good for students who may not have the resources to make business cards or big boards.
“It levels the playing field,” he said. “There are hundreds if not thousands of students who never really come onto campus. How are they supposed to read your flyer in the student center? It Is important that when you are running you are accessible to all audiences.”
However, other people had different opinions on whether or not social media was truly a more accessible method of communicating with voters.
Charlotte Strickland has been an advisor for SGA at UCA for 9 years, working directly with executive officers, cabinet leaders and senators, as well as attending meetings, retreats and campus-wide programming. She oversees annual elections, and during her time as an advisor, she’s observed 18 elections. Over the course of her 9 years, Strickland also admitted to noticing a shift in the way campaigning happens.
“When I first started in late 2011, public relations and marketing for campaigns was mostly print media, door-to-door in residence halls and campus-wide visibility. Now, social media plays a huge role in marketing and campaigning. Facebook, Tik-Tok, Instagram, Twitter and others are used heavily. So much so, that the Election Rules Committee had to include guidelines for usage and this is updated annually,” Strickland said.
However, accessibility, in her eyes, is more of a concern than something to celebrate about the newfound ways of campaigning.
“Where does this leave the student who has limited resources, [such as] no iPhone or internet access? It sadly affirms the digital divide — the haves and have nots. And this is a major concern for equality and access for the students,” Strickland said.
As the pandemic has shown, the “digital divide” is more prominent than ever, with millions without any form of internet access. Although social media provides a quick, easy way to get the message out, perhaps there is still something to be said for the traditional methods like canvassing. While we’re all familiar with Donald Trump’s daily posts on Twitter, it was only in 2008 that Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to take to social media to popularize his run for U.S. President.
As years go on, it seems that as well as social media work, there’s not yet a rush to completely disregard face-to-face communication between politicians and voters — after we’re all safe to resume non-social distanced socializing, that is.
Images courtesy of UARK Vision Instagram