(From left) A Facebook advertisement paid for by the San Antonio Professional Firefighters PAC, and a Facebook advertisement paid for by the Ron Nirenberg Campaign.
(From left) A Facebook advertisement paid for by the San Antonio Professional Firefighters PAC, and a Facebook advertisement paid for by the Ron Nirenberg Campaign. Credit: Courtesy / Facebook

In their aim to get Greg Brockhouse elected, the San Antonio firefighters and police unions outspent Mayor Ron Nirenberg by nearly double on Facebook ads last week, according to the social media site’s political advertisement library.

From May 27 to June 2, the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Political Action Committee and the San Antonio Police Association Political Action Committee paid Facebook $7,177 and $5,582, respectively, to run political ads supporting Councilman Brockhouse (D6) in his runoff race against Nirenberg. The election is Saturday.

By comparison, Nirenberg’s campaign has spent about $6,400 to run Facebook ads during the same period. Brockhouse’s mayoral campaign, however, has doled out only $700 for Facebook ads.

The potency in advertising online lies in the ability to target people based on their web browsing habits and digital profiles, experts said. Facebook, especially, has become a go-to social media platform to influence voters in the wake of President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, said James Smith, a digital strategist who has worked on political campaigns throughout the state.

“If I’m an incumbent mayor or candidate for the same position, Facebook, to me, is a great bullhorn,” Smith said. “A thousand bucks a month on Facebook is like a drop in the bucket.”

Facebook spending does not present a complete picture of the respective campaigns’ digital strategies. Nirenberg spent an additional $3,300 running Google advertisements in the run-up to the May election, according to Google’s advertising reporting tool. Other popular social media platforms, such as Instagram and Twitter, do not have an equivalent database for searching political advertisements.

“I can tell you if [Brockhouse’s campaign is] outspending us 2-to-1 on [Facebook], our overall digital program likely outspends them 5-to-1 or better,” Kelton Morgan, Nirenberg’s campaign manager, said in a text message.

Morgan declined to comment further until the election concludes. Representatives for the public safety unions’ political action committees did not respond to interview requests.

Digital media buys, on Facebook and beyond, still pale in comparison to traditional means of campaigning. The mayoral candidates have each spent thousands more on physical mail, deploying campaign personnel, and buying ads on TV and radio. Politicians nationwide have been slow to embrace digital media with only about 3 cents spent on digital media to every dollar received in campaign contributions, according to a 2018 report by the center-left digital strategy group Tech for Campaigns.

Although he appears to be losing the Facebook battle, Nirenberg spent more than three times what Brockhouse did during the past month, according to campaign finance reports filed Friday, with Nirenberg’s expenditures totaling about $320,000 to Brockhouse’s $105,000. But political action committees for the public safety unions spent nearly $130,000 in support of Brockhouse in that same time frame.

But the special interest groups’ spending toward online advertising is a clear signal of their continued presence – and influence – in City politics. That presence really took root after the passage of two ballot propositions in November dealt a significant blow to Nirenberg, then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and the City Hall establishment. The public safety unions have rallied behind Brockhouse, a former consultant for the firefighter and police unions, as the firefighters’ union aims to earn concessions while negotiating a new contract.

Searches on each of the advertising libraries for political action committees supporting Nirenberg yielded ads shared by a page called San Antonians for Progress, which has spent $188 to dissuade voters from electing the “GOP-approved” Brockhouse.

Austin-based Progress Texas, a left-leaning political strategy firm, launched a late offensive this week calling Brockhouse, “the wrong choice for mayor.” The organization spent thousands of dollars running ads imploring viewers to look into the councilman’s child support liens and domestic violence allegations. The liberal advocacy group spent $113,000 total to support Nirenberg’s campaign, according to reports filed with the City this week.

Facebook’s platform allows advertisers to reach people based on age, gender, location, and education level, among other attributes. Clicking through Facebook’s details on the mayor candidates’ advertisements, Nirenberg’s target audience appears to skew younger, in the 25-44 age range, than Brockhouse’s, which largely sought the attention of Facebook users 45 and older.

Of the most popular social media platforms, data from the Pew Research Center shows people ages 50 and up are much more likely to use Facebook than sites such as Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter, whereas younger adults tend to use multiple social media accounts.

If the data holds true about Facebook’s appeal to older adults, the Brockhouse-backing political action committees appear to be using the correct platform while broadcasting a message that might resonate with more senior, conservative-leaning voters – more public safety investment, religious freedom, and lower property taxes.

“It’s all about targeting,” said Christopher Reddick, a professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio. “It’s not about who’s supporting you but who could possibly support you. It’s the ones that haven’t decided that are the ones you want to target. Trying to figure out who they are and how to get them to the polls is always a great challenge.”

Together, the fire and police unions have spent more than $73,000 on Facebook ads during the past year as they have attempted to sway voters in municipal elections in November, May, and June.

An advertisement paid for by the San Antonio Police Officers Association PAC claims that "Under Nirenberg Rape Is Up."
An advertisement paid for by the San Antonio Police Officers Association PAC claims that “Under Nirenberg Rape Is Up.” Credit: Courtesy / Facebook

The Facebook advertisements charge eyebrow-raising claims, including that incidents of rape have increased 36 percent citywide during Nirenberg’s mayoral tenure. Rape offenses, indeed, rose from 599 in 2017 to 680 in 2018, according to the FBI’s uniform crime report, but by 13.5 percent. The advertisement was later revised to say, generally, that “rape is up.”

Facebook ads Nirenberg’s campaign ran earlier in the election season focused on Brockhouse’s alleged history of domestic abuse. The San Antonio Express-News first reported in March that police were called to Brockhouse’s home in 2006 and 2009 in connection with accusations of domestic assault. Brockhouse was not charged in either case, and his wife, who was the purported claimant in the now-vanished 2009 report, denies the incident took place.

The mayor’s ads in recent weeks, however, have taken a different tack, focusing more on the influence the public safety unions wield over Brockhouse than the assault allegations.

The back-and-forth muckraking has resulted in one of the most contentious mayoral races in recent memory. Jacquelyn Callanen, Bexar County Elections Administrator, has received complaints from each camp that campaign workers were shouting at and intimidating voters.

“It’s active out there,” Callanen said.

That’s true, at the polls and on social media.

Nirenberg supporter Linda Karamanian Maldonado posted a heavily Photoshopped image with the caption: “How many fakes can you spot?”

Social media, increasingly, functions as a battleground pitting one candidates’ legion of supporters versus the others. No matter how much money is spent, many users will be drawn to that organic virality, and not paid ads, to push the online conversation, Reddick said.

Apart from the professionally produced Facebook ads, the polarizing race has inspired Nirenberg supporters to make memes taking jabs at Brockhouse’s education and Brockhouse supporters to doctor images of pro-Nirenberg activists holding Brockhouse signs.

“I can see why politicians don’t want to spend a lot of money on social media,” he said. “A lot of times, social influencers push the conversation you want to get in front of them to drive your agenda.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.