Social media was a bigger part of the election season of 2012 than ever before, from the enormous volume of Facebook updates and tweets to memes during the Presidential debates to public awareness of what the campaigns were doing there in popular culture. Facebook may even have booted President Obama’s vote tally.
Last week, looking at Twitter as a predictor the Iowa caucus results or building tools to do so felt like the shiny object of the moment in the tech blogosphere. Some were more over the top than others but the genre is well established: adapt the numbers of followers and fans a candidate has on Twitter and Facebook to the classic “horse race” coverage of political campaigns. Used that way, it feels like the latest in a long list of reasons to conjecture that political coverage is broken.
As Micah Sifry suggested at techPresident, however, you shouldn’t believe the social media hype.
“There are so many ways that such changes might NOT be indicative of anything, or indicative of the opposite, that it almost seems silly to list them. A candidate might gain followers because he’s entertaining to his opponents. She might gain followers because of something outrageous that she says. The same with retweets. As the saying used to go, “a link is not an endorsement.” At best, it’s a very low-level indication of interest, an invitation to start a relationship that campaigns need to convert into real support. Similarly, we shouldn’t take big numbers of followers or “likes” as proof that a candidate has a really engaged base. Over on the Huffington Post, Alan Rosenblatt demolishes the notion that Newt Gingrich 1.4 million Twitter followers means he’s popular among Republicans. For starters, half of those accounts aren’t even in the United States. Newt’s numbers are a sign of online longevity and notoriety, not much more. And who can forget when Herman Cain was topping the Facebook “buzz” charts?”
Today at techPresident, Nick Judd published a feature on Twitter obsession that went even deeper into the issue and how problematic trying to prognosticate about the campaigns using social media can be. It’s worth reading the whole thing but here’s the relevant bit:
“The thing about attaching numbers to people’s names is that it usually makes them want to make the number go up. Call it gamification if you want. The truth is that it’s human nature, and as more people pay attention to social media, it is creating a sort of downward behavioral spiral. Candidates wanting more points on the social media scoreboard are urging supporters to tweet and post to Facebook on their behalf — spreading borderline spam on social networks and doing nothing to make the campaign season less of a horse race when that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. “
Judd suggests that instead, political reporters and tech journalists (and those of us who try to straddle those worlds, on some level) should be evaluating the success — or failure of campaigns based upon better metrics.
“…why not evaluate them in the public online sphere based on metrics that say more about their potential as a public official? Especially over the past two years, information of this type has become easier for programmers to get to. The unfinished bit is making a competition in which a candidate can ‘win the Internet’ by accumulating the most small-dollar donors, or by making the most in-state campaign stops of an hour or more in a week, or by staking out the most detailed position on oh, I don’t know, the future of American Internet infrastructure.”
I think Judd is offering political journalists a great way to differentiate themselves from the pack of stressed, overworked correspondents chasing the same story in the same place. As primary season goes into hyperdrive, I can’t help but hope that some take up his suggestion.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of social media and government over the past couple years. Governance has proven to be a genuine challenge, at least with respect to the current architectures for digital participation we have. That could well change, as the civic Web moves from idea to reality. To make the point in a succinct way, policy makers seeking to leverage technology in governance in the 21st century might do better to look to the wiki, not the tweet.
Campaigns, however, particularly well suited to quicksilver sociality of media, with its capacity to share links to viral videos, rapid responses or pithy quotes. There’s a reason that reporters of many stripes, political or not, watch Twitter carefully now: it tends to be where news breaks first.
All that being said, I saw some data tonight that made me wonder, yet again, about social media’s potential value as a leading indicator, getting out ahead of the polls that campaigns and the media traditionally use to gauge how the candidates are doing. While Twitter still has low penetration in the overall population of voters, a majority of Americans online are now on Facebook.
Earlier this evening, I got off the phone with Jan Rezab, CEO of Socialbakers, whose company has been crunching social data from Facebook around the GOP presidential candidates. They’ve been porting the data into an infographic on elections at socialbakers.com.
There are several ways to read the data, said Rezab, including the overall status of a candidate, where they’ve been gaining followers over a long period of time. If we look deeper, said Rezab, the best thing is geometrics, looking at fan gains, people talking about the candidates, how many people do they reach and what topic they talk about.
So here’s the interesting data point — and yes, I may well have buried the lede — social data from Facebook shows former Utah Governor John Huntsman is trending sharply upwards, much as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum did before Iowa. Hunstman gained 1182 fans yesterday and, as of 7 PM EST tonight, more than 2000 fans, a 69% increase. The same is also true of people talking about him on Facebook, with some 8800 people on the 8th and approximately 11,0000 today, a 25% increase.
That’s “quite huge growth,” said Rezab. “He’s the one that’s trending right now.”
Will growth be a leading indicator for Huntsman finishing 3rd or even 2nd? Hard to say. The gold standard for political calculus is Nate Silver at 538, who is now at the New York Times. Silver blogged today that “Huntsman has momentum but lacks time“:
“Two new polls out Sunday night showed a favorable trend for Mr. Huntsman. A Public Policy Polling survey, which had a very large sample size, gave him 16 percent of the vote, enough to challenge Ron Paul for second place. Another poll, by the University of New Hampshire, had Mr. Huntsman at 11 percent of the vote, although this was improved from his 7-percent standing earlier in the week.”
Will that be enough to keep him viable and in the race? It’s hard to know. I’ll refer readers back to Silver’s analysis of Huntsman’s prospects on that count.
Here’s one more thing to consider: relevant academic research. Responding to a question on Twitter about whether Facebook was was predictive, Girish J. “Jeff” Gulati, a politics professor at Bentley University, replied that the growth in Huntsman’s “likes” and “mentions” was not. Rather, “our 2008 data suggest it would be response to positive news coverage of his debate performance and gains in NH polls,” he replied. According to “Social Networks in Political Campaigns: Facebook and Congressional Elections 2006, 2008,” co-authored with Christine B. Williams, suggests a causal relationship is credibel, if not confirmed by their research data and methods:
Preliminary analysis of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests (Williams and Gulati, 2008) suggests that Facebook supporters matters even more than candidate visits and television ad buys, and together these indicators explain very high percentages of the variance in candidates‟ vote shares. The predictive power of the model for all New Hampshire voters was lower than for the model of all voters in the Iowa caucuses, however, and the regression coefficients for Facebook support were not statistically significant. The model for the youngest age cohort in New Hampshire was highly predictive, and there was a very strong and highly significant relationship between actual vote share and Facebook support among 18-24 year olds. Another approach would be to include as an independent variable the percentage voter turnout for 18 to 29 year olds in each state‟s nomination contest. If Facebook support is simply a surrogate for young people‟s heightened political engagement in the 2008 election, its independent effect would wash out.
If future research can confirm these findings and demonstrate a causal connection between online strategies and votes, then Facebook and other social networking sites will be an essential tool in enhancing the democratic process. These sites go beyond simply communicating the campaign‟s theme and information on how to make participating easier. Active engagement by the candidate and a well maintained site can make the candidate more accessible and seem more authentic. It also can encourage a more professional discussion among supporters. In addition to personalizing the candidate, Facebook puts a face on the candidate‟s other supporters and facilitates interpersonal connections around activities other than politics. And because Facebook organizes members by regional and organizational networks and gives greater access to profiles in one‟s own networks, offline meetings and connections are a real possibility. As membership in traditional civic associations declines, we see in these networks a new frontier for cultivating social capital, which candidates, elected officials and civic leaders can tap when they want to mobilize citizens for political action.
Will rapid changes on Facebook predict the winner of the 2011 NH presidential primary? There’s little doubt 2008 Facebook was a very different place, in terms of scale, functionality and integration into the lives of Americans online, than 2012 Facebook is today. Tens of millions of citizens have tablets and smartphones now and access Facebook from where ever they are. As we saw last Sunday, television networks and Facebook are increasingly integrating debates.
There’s “definitely a lot more going on Facebook and other social media this time around,” wrote Gulati in a follow up email. “In fact, every two years we see so much growth and change. I’ve been studying this since 2002. The beauty of studying this field is that there always exciting and you are never short of ideas for a new study. I still am sticking with my view that it is not a strong predictor of future success at the polls.”
Gulati listed three rationales for this assessment:
1. Much of social media strength is a function of longevity on Facebook and national visibility. “Gingrich, Romney, Paul, and Bachmann start out strong simply because they ran before and carry over their supporters or are members of Congress that are known nationwide,” wrote Gulati.
2. Some of the candidates who are stronger on social media are in that position because they are shut out of traditional sources. “Ron Paul and Buddy Roemer are cases in point,” wrote Gulati. “So my point is not to look at social media in isolation of other media.”
3. Social media isn’t integrated with the campaign. “From our interviews with Congressional candidates and staff in 2008 and 2010 (~150 interviews), we found that the staff really does not know what to do with these likes and followers,” wrote Gulati. “So even if a social media consultant is succeeding in growing the candidate’s online presence, it really does not go much past that. I think that as the number of followers grows, it actually will be harder for campaigns to truly engage with them because there are just too many. A similar problem was happening in Congress with regards to e-mail overload. I’m not sure if they really have resolved the problem.”
Gulati attributes rapid changes in likes or mentions to external events, which is makes sense. The one billion dollar question, is whether a social media following will lead to offline action, in this case results at the polls:
Of course, your post was referring to the change in supporters rather than actual numbers. I think clearly that indicates some buzz around the candidate. But I still see it as a reaction to external events as in 2008 rather than social media pushing overall numbers mostly because I haven’t seen any evidence that social media strength can move poll numbers or actual results. I think one reason that so many of us who study social media give social media such an elevated prominence because that’s all we see or what we see on a regular basis.”
Do you think the growth in user base and political involvement will lead other researchers to different conclusions? Or, as Sifry and Judd eloquently argued, should the idea or the practice of looking at politics from the perspective of a social prism alone simply be consigned to the “dustbin of twistory?”
Comments are open. And, even more important, the first votes of the presidential primary season will be cast as the eyes of the nation turn towards Dixville Notch .
Ten years ago, staffers thought Al Gore was weird for texting Tipper. Fast forward a decade to late 2010, when any politician who doesn’t use check email on a smartphone or monitor what the media and voters are saying on social media platforms risks being judged out of step. As the midterm elections loom large next month, a large majority of the United States House and Senate are on Facebook. A smaller majority uses Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. While the effectiveness of that usage varies from candidate to candidate, the question of whether social media is a fad is largely settled.
One of the great unanswered questions of this election with respect to social media will be whether fan or follower numbers have any predictive value with respect to elections. Another will be whether more interactive candidates are more successful. What remains is to decide which strategies and tactics will make the difference in winning elections.
Earlier tonight, a panel of experts from media, campaigns and academia came together at George Washington University for “Going Viral: How Campaigns are Using Social Media,” an event jointly sponsored by Politico and Facebook. The panel featured:
- Ben Smith, Politico, moderator
- Mindy Finn, EngageDC
- Adam Conner, Facebook
- Sam Arora, Democrat for Delegate (MD)
- Matthew Hindman, George Washington University
- Philip de Vellis, Murphy Putnam Media
What was the high level take away? You can judge yourself: Video of the panel on political campaigns and social media is available at CSPAN and embedded below:
Politico’s own Meredith Shiner reported that “social media still has much to prove.” As Shiner noted, Finn told the audience that “Despite the increased attention paid by the media to political Facebook and Twitter accounts, campaigns today still spend less than 5 percent of their media expenditures online.” Determining whether that spend is consistent across all campaigns would be useful. That said, part of the allure of social media is that it requires an investment in time and expertise, not classical media buys. Sarah Palin, Scott Brown and Barack Obama could use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to achieve awareness of their messages without huge campaign war chests. For underfunded campaigns, using those tools isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.
Drawing from those take aways, here are eight more lessons for social media and politics:
1) Politicians have to use social media themselves to realize its full potential. Most campaigns are on Facebook. As Facebook’s Adam Conner pointed out, however, what remains is for candidates to understand tech personally and use it. “When you put a communications manager or staffer in between 140 characters or a Facebook update,” he said, “it’s much less authentic.”
2) Social media is not going away. “It’s the place we all have to be,” said Smith. As citizens turn to the Internet for government data, information, e-services, not to mention news, media and government entities have to “fish where the fish are.”
3) Very few Congressional candidates are doing a good job with these tools. At least, that was Professor Matthew Hindman’s take at the event. Judging from the feeds of many candidates, there’s clearly a learning curve with respect to style, conventions and technical acumen. Posting press releases to Twitter or Facebook does not realize their potential. Neither does treating the platforms the same way. For instance, Finn said that “tweeting from Facebook” is one of her pet peeves. Connor had seen enough “double third person posting” by staff to find it annoying. Voters are likely no different.
4) Social media enables candidates to build the intensity of support. While tweets and updates may not sway independents in of themselves, building strong online communities of supporters can translate into electoral success.
5) Friend power is important. Online, people are increasingly finding news stories from one other on Facebook, Twitter or other social networks, as opposed to through a search engine. That makes creating content with high “shareability” key, whether it’s embeddable videos, polling widgets or tweetable campaign slogans.
6. Leaving negative comments online builds trust, up to a point. In order for voters to see a page is a place for debate, you need to leave as many negative comments up as possible, said de Vellis, with the exception of abusive or pornographic content, which should be moderated. “Leave as much up as much as you can stomach,” said Finn. If the site is a place for supporters, “they’ll jump in and support you.” Conner suggested setting a policy up ahead of time, which a campaign can use to tramp down bad publicity. He said that it’s even more imporatnt to internal staff to have discussions ahead of time to get universal understanding of that policy.
7. This is the year of mobile. Again. As Pew Internet researcher Susannah Fox powerfully articulated in her presentation on the power of mobile this fall, 82 percent of American adults have a cell phone. Six in 10 American adults go online wirelessly with a laptop or mobile device. “Mobile was the final front in the access revolution,” she said. “It has erased the digital divide. A mobile device is the Internet for many people. Access isn’t the point anymore. It’s what people are doing with the access that matters.” As important as social media may become to the future of campaigns, reaching voters using email, text messages and calls to their cellphones – good old “Web 1.0” – is still paramount, along with a ground game to get them to the polls.
8. Candidates who use social media personally are more likely to use it on campaigns and ultimately in governance, says Adam Conner.
Once in office, the challenges of using technology for open government are even greater. Just ask the staffers at the Obama Administration and federal agencies, where open government initiatives in beta are moving from plans to implementation.
Telling the story of social media and politics
Befitting the occasion, below are selected tweets and images from the event, curated using Storify: