Beyond Campaigning: Social Media’s Growing Role in Politics February 16, 2010

Written by: Digitally Approved
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In celebration of our greatest presidents we at Fanscape are taking a closer look at politics in the age of social media. Where it came from, where we’re at and where it’s going.

In the 2004 election Dr. Howard Dean emerged from virtual obscurity to become a viable presidential candidate – due in large part to his online fundraising efforts. To fund his campaign, he encouraged supporters to send online donations and visually tracked the progress on his website.  Many credit Dean as the pioneer for online campaigning and the inspiration for President Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 campaign developed by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

As we saw in 2008, President Obama took the use of the web and social media to a new level, harnessing its power to mobilize his supporters from the ground up.  More recently, increasing numbers of those in Congress have turned to Twitter as a primary means of communication with their constituents and counterparts. Whether it’s providing a community for supporters to team up or an avenue to lash out directly to your representative, social media is becoming firmly entrenched in the political sphere.

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Although it may have been a case of too little too late, John McCain also delved into the social space in 2008 with his own networking site coined McCainSpace and a blog run by his daughter at McCainBlogette.com. The project did not see the same level of success as Obama’s, but it is certainly safe to say that the 2008 election was the first to make social media a primary campaign component. Today, President Obama has official profiles on more than 16 different social networking sites including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – all of which are active.  His website also includes tools to join a local group, organize an event and fundraise.

The web has expanded politician’s reach dramatically.  This past month, more than 1.3 million viewers watched the President’s most recent State of the Union address from their computer screens or mobile devices on sites like YouTube, Hulu, Ustream, Facebook and CNN. The White House even released its own iPhone app that provided a live stream of the coverage.

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Following the masses, many politicians are making social sites their preferred method of public communication.  For proof, look no further than former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, who used his Facebook profile to announce that he would not be participating in the upcoming race for Minnesota governor. Using Facebook gave him direct control over the venue and the message while avoiding tedious media inquiries and misinterpretations. This type of authenticity is increasingly important in an environment notorious for fence straddling, side swapping and general ambiguity.  When asked why he chose the medium of Facebook, Coleman replied simply, “Because it’s 2010.”  Expect his actions to be the beginning of a new political norm.

Though not all politicians are as forward-thinking as Coleman, a large portion of Congressional members and groups are active social media producers and consumers.  TweetCongress.org, which tracks Twitter activity of Congressional members, lists more than 200 active members and groups. Some of the most popular include Arizona Senator John McCain, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint.

Republicans may currently be in the minority, but recent research indicates that they are the definite majority in the social media world. In his white paper “Twongress – The Power of Twitter in Congress”, Mark Senak determines that nearly half of the Republican caucus is on Twitter and that GOP members tweet more often and have more followers than their Democrat counterparts. Similar trends exist for YouTube, Facebook and other sites as well. Senator Scott Brown, who on January 19th became the first Republican elected to a Massachusetts senatorial seat since 1972, had five times more Facebook fans and three times more Twitter followers than his opponent Martha Coakley. This is certainly not the sole reason for his surprise victory, but the presence of an active social following must be given significant weight in the overall picture.

6a00d83451bf5969e20120a7cfcf60970b-800wiWhile the web has the potential to provide a level playing field for all parties and participants, recent research indicates that, just as in the offline world, there is a strong correlation between online political activity levels and household income. The study also found that active social media members are commonly the most active members in the political world as well. These indicators may explain some of the current skew toward rightward political participation, but the reality is that the Internet has altered longstanding patterns previously defined entirely by socio-economic factors.

The web has vaulted low-profile candidates into the spotlight and given them the ability to broadcast their platform at a level that less than a decade ago would have required several million dollars. It is exciting to watch as political figures and groups make use of social media, but merely having a presence is simply not enough. Politicians and the political world must continue to push far beyond campaigning and the occasional tweet by actively engaging with their audience. Bringing them closer and inviting them to be a part of the process is what engagement is all about. George and Abe would be proud.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Campaigning: Social Media’s Growing Role in Politics

  1. Great post, Fanscape! The political world has only just scratched the surface of what’s possible with social networks – the emergence of simple, low-cost tools that lower barriers to connecting people is probably the greatest revolution in communication since the creation of the Internet itself. We wrote a recent blog post about this ourselves, pointing out the way Social Media is energizing our American democracy. Just as having a campaign website became table stakes (even for local campaigns) in the early 2000’s, so every campaign around now offers a Facebook Page and a Twitter feed. They’re still learning how to use these tools, but with so many young, energetic people willing to volunteer on campaigns they’re getting it figured out pretty quickly.

    The next big wave is clearly campaign iPhone apps. You point out the Obama app, and a quick search of iTunes today will show that campaigns are latching on to this new strategy quickly. Apple has been slow to accept the use of the iPhone as a social organizing tool – we spent months arguing with Apple about whether and how we could use iPhone apps to solicit contributions on behalf of political campaigns and nonprofit organizations – but they’re finally understanding that people really want to use it this way so they’re making app approval easier. But just think about all the connection power that social media provide – and then bundle that up and stuff it in your jeans pocket and the opportunities are limitless!

    As campaign iPhone apps developers ourselves it’s been fascinating to see Republicans be much faster out of the gate than Democrats when it comes to mobile technologies. Sam Brownback was the first gubernatorial candidate to offer an iPhone app and Republican Senatorial candidates have many more apps than their Democratic counterparts. Democrats seem to have fallen asleep at the wheel when it comes to mobile, and they’ll have to do some serious scrambling to catch up.

    Thanks again for lifting up this exciting trend!

    Jeff Pfaff
    MTBMobile.com

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