Social Media and the US Election

By: James | Posted On: October 23, 2012

The current 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign is being fought with tweets, hashtags, Facebook updates and emails in an epic battle for online supremacy.

Thus, this election is set to be the most social media centric election in political history. Ever.

That is, since the last one.

Indeed, when Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama ran in 2008, his team used the Internet to a degree never seen before – and with significant effect, said political communications strategist Peter Fenn.

“First of all, if you look at the numbers on this, it’s absolutely incredible. He had 4 million donors to his campaign, which is about one in 17 people who voted for him gave him money,” said Fenn. “That had never happened in American politics. Second thing is [that] you had about 16 million email addresses that he had of folks.”

But this time around, the incumbent Obama started much earlier and began ramping up his digital campaign back in 201 with millions of online ads. Indeed, if the online space were the only measure, Obama would win in a landslide.

Ready for some statistics?

The president has around 30.8 million “likes” on Facebook to just some 9.3 million for Romney. Obama has more than 20.8 million followers of his Twitter feed @barackobama to about 1.4 million for Romney’s @mittromney.

Obama’s YouTube channel has nearly 240,000 subscribers and more than 246 million video views, while Romney’s channel on the popular Google-owned video service has a little under 23,700 subscribers and around 26 million video views. The tech-savvy president also leads on other platforms such as Google+ and Pinterest.

However, it’s difficult to quantify exactly how Facebook posts, tweets and followers will translate into votes on November 6. But social media at least appears to be getting more people involved in the political dialogue. After the first Obama-Romney debate, there were more than 10 million tweets, making it what Twitter called “the most tweeted-about event in U.S. politics.”

One way for candidates and supporters to stay in touch on Twitter is by using hashtags, the # symbol that can represent a theme or topic. But in the freewheeling world of Twitter, the hashtags can be “hijacked” by the opposition. This occurred in September when Romney backers created the hashtag #AreYouBetterOff in an effort to mobilize support, only to see this used by Obama backers, who outnumbered the Republicans by an estimated three to one in tweeting for the incumbent.

To make matters worse for Romney, the effort was believed to be the first use in the campaign of “promoted” or sponsored tweets aimed at promoting a trend. The cost he incurred was estimated to be at least $120,000 per day (i.e. #fail).

“This isn’t really news so much as a basic matter of affairs in Twitter politics. Your tag can and will be used against you,” said Zach Green, who runs a Twitter consulting service and blog called 140Elect. Green said another incident occurred when a Republican group tried to promote the hashtag #FailingAgenda, only to find Democrats turning it around and calling Mitt Romney a failure.

It should be noted that social media ads and campaigns are a very different beast to TV or billboard ads; for example, in order to go “viral”, your message has to inspire or entertain users. Both sides, then, are constantly on the look out for sound bites or, ideally, an opposition faux pas that they can use to get the online world buzzing.

During the first debate, the Romney campaign delivered Big Bird, one of the Republican candidate’s targets for funding cuts along with public broadcasting. Such easy prey for President Obama, whose campaign launched a rejoinder sure to capture the tyke vote: “Obama kills Osama bin Laden and Romney wants to kill Big Bird”.

It was the kind of setup that puts comedy writers out of work.

Next came the “binders full of women.” Romney was answering (or avoiding) a question about the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which removed the statute of limitations for filing complaints about unequal pay, and switched to his record on hiring women. In the process of a search to fill Cabinet positions while governor of Massachusetts, he said he had “binders full of women.”

Before the debate was over, the hashtag #bindersfullofwomen was ricocheting through the Twitterverse. By morning, “binders full of women” was the lead topic on talk shows and continues to be a multimedia punch line.

But, in the grand scheme of things, how important is social media really? Is it actually playing a bigger role in this election?

Or is it just hyperbole generated by bloggers (such as myself) looking to somehow tie social media into anything topical?

Well, Mark Zuckerberg’s “law of sharing” is an important indicator here: it is to social media what Moore’s law is to computing power. Coined a few years back, the Facebook founder’s law asserts that the amount of information shared digitally will double every year. And this, analysts claim, will never be more evident than in 2012.

More than that, the “law of sharing” and the prominence of social media have also had important, real-world consequences. For example, a recent Pew study revealed that Facebook users are more than twice as likely to participate in political meetings or rallies. Indeed, online sharing is leading directly to offline engagement and activism. Moreover, experts suggest that this phenomenon will be repeated around the world in local and national political debates and elections.

In the 2008 election, Twitter was but a fledgling, and Facebook had a mere 100 million users. Today, four years later, Twitter is on track to reach a quarter of a billion users by the end of 2012, and Facebook is approaching 1 billion users. Indeed, social media is now seemingly ubiquitous, and one of the often-overlooked aspects of the social web is the speed and ease at which people can share their views.

But back in 2008 Obama took the Republicans by surprise with his campaign’s adept handling of social media. It was a one-sided, online debate. Now – even though Obama has the upper hand – both Republicans and Democrats have made social media the centrepiece of their campaigns. This is the first, online fair fight.

However, more importantly, given how closely social mentions track to the polls, social media might also finally be able to predict the outcome of an election. Indeed, as the political debate shifts ever increasingly online, the demise of the opinion poll might prove to be the most profound consequence to come out of the social media age. It is not inconceivable that future elections might even be determined by Twitter mentions.

So, who will you be backing for 2016? My money’s on the “Bieber/Gaga” ticket.



One Response to Social Media and the US Election

  1. Pingback: 2012 in Review and the Year Ahead

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About The Author

James is an aspiring writer and academic magpie. Currently attempting his third degree at Cambridge, he plans on being Prime Minister one day. He blogs about digital curiosities.

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