With presidential candidates staking out presences on a variety of social media sites, the old saw “Politics as usual” may be about to become less meaningful – or will it?
According to a recent study by the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), the candidates are not using social media in revolutionary new ways – that is, to open conversations with followers. As in the past, candidates are still following the model of broadcasting messaging rather than opening dialogue. Media has changed, even if the ways candidates use it has not. Social media is much more available, and allows supporters and detractors of each candidate to actively respond.
The Obama campaign (@BarackObama) leads not only in number of followers, but also in social media use, tweeting an average of 29 times per day from two Twitter accounts. The Romney campaign (@MittRomney) tweets just once a day on average, says PEJ.
While neither candidate is actively engaging the blogosphere in actual discussion, there is a clear difference between the topics covered, with the Romney campaign roughly twice as likely to focus on Obama as the President’s campaign is to discuss his opponent. The character of messaging remains disparate on other issues as well – the Romney campaign’s economy-related posts focus on jobs, while Obama’s posts deal with economic philosophy and the importance of preserving the middle class.
Interestingly, the two campaigns show tremendous variation in apparent engagement of their respective audiences. For example, at 1,124,175 Facebook likes, the President shows nearly double the Internet engagement of Romney, with 633,597 likes. PEJ similarly cites a significant disparity of engagement with the audience. During a two-week monitoring period this spring by PEJ, the Obama campaign retweeted other sources 16 times. The Romney campaign retweeted just one post – an earlier tweet from Romney’s son Josh.
Will the President’s lead in social media translate into an advantage for him and his party at the polls? The answer to that question depends on many variables, such as what this disparity in social media engagement says about the constituencies each party is trying to address. Could it be that the Democrats, traditionally the party of the younger voter, are simply illustrating the difference in communication preferences between the very different demographics of Democrats and Republicans?
It may not be that simple. Despite differences in communications preferences shown by followers of the two parties, whether sliced by generation, political preference, level of education, or another factor, one aspect of general social media use translates fluently into the political sphere. That is to say, in social media, the greatest impact has been achieved by those on the ground. This is perhaps as true in this year’s presidential race as it has been in matters of fundraising, vigilante justice, and social change.
Consider the story covered in the New Yorker of the far-right wing of the Republican party’s expeditious overthrow of Richard Grenell last spring, an openly gay man hired by Mitt Romney as his national security spokesman. The hiring of a gay man to such a promienent position was anathema to Bryan Fischer, host of the conservative Christian radio show “Focal Point” and self-proclaimed enemy of what he refers to as “the homosexual rights movement.”
Within 9 days of the hire announcement, Richard Grenell was forced to resign after a relentless media campaign by Fischer. The campaign started with just one tweet. The story quickly snowballed after it was picked up by Buzzfeed and others.
A post in Salon put Fischer’s Twitter followers at 1,571 at the time (he currently has over 2,200), although half were believed to be reporters monitoring his strongly stated views opposing evolution and “sinful” popular culture, as well as homosexuality. There is no doubt that Grenell’s radio show “Focal Point” gave him a powerful tool to unite his followers in pressing for the removal of Grenell and forcing the Romney campaign to reverse a key hiring decision. It is also apparent that people with causes are increasingly turning to social media as an effective vehicle for airing thier views and uniting with the like-minded.
What is less clear is the extent social media made this possible, and the degree that social media engagement will help to determine who will occupy the nation’s top office for the next four years. With more questions than answers, the next two months promise to be instructive to all of us.