by ABRAHAM UNGER, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Government & Politics
Even before President Obama’s highly noted use of social media to support his 2008 presidential campaign, politicians had begun to use the Internet in general because it is “fast, easy to use, and cheap.” (Janda, 2006) Already in 2004, it was recognized that the Internet could be used for fundraising and communicating. In 2004, presidential candidate Howard Dean was the first candidate to seriously utilize the Internet as a fundraising tool, raising $20 million, which represented fully 40% of his campaign contributions. John Kerry collected $82 million, representing 33% of his campaign funds. Dean also produced the first Internet communication forum to mobilize supporters, in the form of a blog, and used meetup.com to organize meetings. Several hundred thousand activists eventually became members of Dean’s Meetup group. Scholars following this emerging trend predicted that mechanisms to electronically extend the reach of a campaign would only grow in 2008. Indeed, by 2008, advertising on political blogs to increase campaign support had become widespread.
It was President Obama who utilized social media most effectively. Obama strategically used social networking to build a campaign platform that went beyond traditional political networks, allowing him to beat seemingly insurmountable electoral odds, first against the most established candidate within his own party, Democrat Hillary Clinton, and then Republican John McCain.
The Obama campaign brought together social networking applications within the framework and branding of a movement. In the process, he collected a database with millions of names of people who could be engaged instantaneously, thereby bypassing other means of communications that politicians have had to depend upon historically.
As blogger Ranjit Mathoda put it, “Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work.” The Republicans, who were behind in using social networking under the influence of Bush strategist Karl Rove, have quickly caught up, and the Tea Party has been buttressed and strengthened by social networking to build its grassroots movement across the country.
Candidates have embraced Twitter and Facebook, and the trend shows no signs of letting up. They are using these sites to announce their hopes to be president. The current presidential election promises to be the first that uses these platforms across all campaigns as a force equal to, and maybe more powerful than, other means of getting a campaign’s message out to galvanize supporters and reach new ones. After all, Twitter and Facebook reach potential voters where they are without the burden of direct mail or phone bank calling.
Here are the most reliable numbers analyzing the use of social networking as a source of engagement with political campaigns. While they are from the 2010 midterm election, they speak to the potential of this platform in the 2012 presidential campaign:
- 22% of online adults used Twitter or social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace in the months leading up to the November 2010 elections to connect to the campaign or the election itself.
- Overall, 73% of adult Internet users went online to get news or information about the 2010 midterm elections, or to get involved in the campaign in one way or another.
- 11% of online adults discovered on a social networking site who their friends voted for in the November elections.
- 9% of online adults received candidate or campaign information on social networking sites or Twitter.
- 8% of online adults posted political content on Twitter or a social networking site.
- 7% of online adults “friended” a candidate or political group on a social networking site, or “followed” them on Twitter.
- 7% of online adults started or joined a political group on a social networking site.
- 1% of online adults used Twitter to follow the election results as they were happening.
Compared with the rest of the online population (i.e., those who went online but did not use Twitter or social networking sites for political purposes in 2010), the “political social media” user group differs in some respects from other Internet users:
- Political social media users stand out for their overall use of technology. They are significantly more likely than other Internet users to go online wirelessly from a cell phone or laptop (91% vs. 67%); own a laptop computer (79% vs. 63%); have a high-speed broadband connection (94% vs. 80%); and use the Internet on their cell phone (61% vs. 40%).
- Demographically, political social media users are younger and somewhat more educated than other Internet users. About two in five (42%) are under the age of 30 (vs. 22% for the rest of the online population), and 41% have a college degree (34% of other Internet users have graduated from college). However, they look quite similar to the rest of the online population in their racial, gender and income composition.
In trying to understand how these networks attract participants, research has uncovered that Facebook users are much more politically engaged than most people to begin with. Compared to other Internet users and users of other social networking platforms, a Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day was an additional 2½ times more likely to attend a political rally or meeting, 57% more likely to persuade someone on their vote, and 43% more likely to have said they would vote. (Pew Internet and American Life Project, a project of the Pew Research Center, June 2011) This propensity only strengthens the already powerful social pull of these networks.
Are social networks democracy in action? Or do they diminish the cautious republicanism the framers of the Constitution sought to put in place? While social networks have proven important as campaign tools, they have proven less effective as sources of political and civic engagement once a campaign is over. Furthermore, they create an unceasing news cycle that only adds tension and speed to a campaign while diminishing reflective deliberation over the course of the electoral process. Nonetheless, this is the social environment in which we live. American democracy, over time, will need to think through the place and thoughtful use of this new instrument of public engagement.