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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Social Media Has Changed The Nature Of Political Engagement

Jacqueline Jackson |
November 5, 2012 | 10:09 a.m. PST


President Obama participated in a Facebook Town Hall. (Barack Obama, Creative Commons)
President Obama participated in a Facebook Town Hall. (Barack Obama, Creative Commons)
In the 2008 presidential election, social media was new groundbreaking technology. YouTube had just reached its third year of broadcasting to millions and Twitter was in its early stages. The 2008 election saw an increase in voter vlogs and Facebook voter tallies. As BusinessWeek indicated, Twitter as a new service became a reminder of voting locations, fact-checking and even a diary of voter experience. Yet, despite the fact that the 2008 election was characterized by the use of social media for the first time, the degree to which it was used then doesn't compare to this year’s shift toward presidential social media campaigns.

For the 2012 election, candidates have created entire campaigns using social media. Every candidate has established YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts that strategically engage with users. To compare, Mitt Romney has a total of 11.7 million Facebook "likes" and 1.6 million Twitter followers, while President Obama has over 31.6 million Facebook "likes" and over 21 million Twitter followers. Yet, not all "likes" are approved by voters. Romney’s Facebook has come under scrutiny by users that do not support his campaign who are being contacted through his "like" page.

However, large numbers of followers aren’t enough. In order for the candidates' base of supporters to continue to grow, the audience must become advocates for the campaign. According to PC Mag, "engagement level is the key measurement of social media success for a candidate...That means that the number of Twitter followers or Facebook fans a candidate has is not nearly as important as their social media interactions with supporters, how many people share the candidate's message with their own network." Understanding this, the Obama administration embraced social media throughout his first term, but now has gone even further to heavily integrate it into Obama’s plan for communication with voters.

The shift in the use of social media as a campaign tool has come at a time when news and responses to the news are expected by citizens and consumers of media throughout the world to arrive immediately. We've transitioned from a weekly and even daily news cycle to a 24/7, around the clock cycle. Social media has become a way to deal with the increasingly shorter news cycle while satisfying the desire for concrete engagement with other voters, candidates and resources. It is due to this engagement that followers become advocates for both candidates by "liking," retweeting and sharing candidate posts. This allows candidates to access their voter networks, and helps expand their reach by millions across social media sites.

Social media has presented the opportunity for voters to be inundated with information regarding additional candidates or opposing views. Unlike times when voters only received information they searched for, now voters have the opportunity to gain a broader perspective on politics despite their own position. Politics has become integrated into the spheres previously used solely for entertainment and communication among friends. Users can not only support their political candidates, but they can also follow them and engage with them as advocates, through daily exposure to the candidates' viewpoints.

However, not all aspects of the increased use of social media are positive.

According to the PEW Research Center, the response to candidates through social media is far more negative than positive: "Across Twitter, Facebook and blogs, neither Obama nor Romney had a single week of more positive than negative chatter...more than 40% of Twitter, Facebook and blog posts about either candidate were negative."

Despite the barrage of negative tweets, the election and its new relationship with social media has created a free speech mechanism that millions find keep them more informed. On an average day, voters are able to look at election coverage, candidate views and comments on them via social media. The access to information has thus transformed the voters' right to make an educated decision. Due to this change, politicians are increasingly viewing the new technology as an enhanced way to reach their audiences.

Through the use of social media, candidates have a direct conduit into the homes and hands of their prospective audiences. The attention the candidates receive through social media is undoubtedly a great asset in the quest to obtain votes. With only one day left before the election, I'm sure voters will be watching for not only what the candidates say, via news sites and stations, but what they post on social media.


Reach Contributor Jacqueline Jackson here; follow her here.



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