Social Media and Politics: Do Facebook and Twitter influence voters?

Originally published October 12, 2012

Social media, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have become major battlegrounds in this year’s elections. Candidates are using the platforms to identify and organize supporters and raise funds. They bypass traditional news media to send their messages unfiltered to the public. They target niche audiences with growing precision, contact hard-to-reach voters, extend their influence as online supporters forward their messages and carry out many campaign tasks at much lower cost than before. The increasing ability of campaign strategists to collect and analyze information about individual voters has raised privacy concerns, and many worry that the social networks’ insular nature contributes to political polarization. But social media’s low cost, ease of use and wide reach also raise hopes that they can level the campaign-spending playing field.


As Republicans sought to boost Mitt Romney’s then-flagging presidential campaign during their August nominating convention in Tampa, this message popped up on the social media website reddit on Aug. 29:

“I am Barack Obama, President of the United States — AMA” (reddit shorthand for “ask me anything”).

For the next half hour, Obama fielded questions from reddit participants, generating 5,266 queries and comments. By the morning of Aug. 31, the discussion had logged nearly 5.3 million page views. He wrapped up the unprecedented online session — complete with a photo of him at his computer, shirtsleeves rolled up, tie loosened, to prove he was really answering questions — with a pitch for voting and a link to an online voter-registration form.

In the process, the president asserted his affinity for the rapidly growing world of social media and enrolled more than 10,000 reddit users as potential campaign volunteers, Obama chief digital strategist Joe Rospars said. The president also served notice that he would not allow Romney a solo moment in the sun, even during the GOP convention.

Obama’s command of the Internet proved a key to his victory over Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008. This year, all candidates are striving to emulate Obama’s 2008 online success, but there are differences:

  • The president’s 2012 campaign is doing much more online than it did four years ago.
  • The buzz now is about social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the many less-prominent platforms such as reddit, all of which had far less impact — or didn’t even exist — in 2008.
  • And Romney’s camp is determined to keep up.

“The tools people can use to get messages to their friends are much more powerful than they were in 2008,” says Joe Trippi, architect of former New Hampshire Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which tapped the powers of the Internet more than any candidate had done before. “The sheer size of the networks has exploded. [Prominent Democratic strategist James] Carville used to say: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Now ‘It’s the networks, stupid.’”

One proof of social media’s growing importance, says Vincent Harris, who ran GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich’s online activities in some of this year’s primaries, is its incorporation as an integral component of many campaigns’ operations. No longer is the “new-media guy” sent to a corner to manage the Internet in isolation from the rest of the staff, Harris explains.

Other proof is in the numbers. Twitter users posted 1.8 million tweets on Election Day in 2008, the kind of event that spurs social media activity. Now tweets average 340 million a day — nearly 200 times as much. This year’s Republican National Convention generated more tweets the day before it opened than the 2008 convention did during its full run, according to Adam Sharp, head of Twitter’s government, news and social innovation operations.

“More tweets are sent every two days today than had had been sent in total from Twitter’s creation in 2006 to the 2008 election,” he told a panel at the Democratic National Convention in early September. Registered voters who use Facebook today outnumber those who actually voted in the 2008 general election, says Katie Harbath, a Facebook manager who helps Republicans use the platform.

Overall, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults say they use social media regularly. And “they don’t skew as young as you may think,” says Michael Reilly, a partner in the Democratic campaign consulting firm Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly in Alexandria, Va.

While younger people are more likely to use social media, the contingent of older adults is growing most rapidly. Eighty-six percent of 18- to 29-year-olds use social media, compared with about a third of those 65 and older. But participation nearly quintupled among those 50 and older between 2008 and 2012. Nearly three times as many 30- to 49-year-olds use social media now as in 2008. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, the increase was just 19 percent, with the same proportion using social media this year as two years ago.

That growing participation increases social media’s attractiveness to politicians, who use the platforms to identify and organize supporters, raise funds and spread their messages. Candidates bypass traditional news media to send unfiltered communication to the public. They target recipients of their messages with growing precision. They contact hard-to-reach voters — especially the young — who record television programs and fast-forward through the commercials. They use online communication to organize phone banks, door-to-door canvassing and other offline activities. And they tap into what is believed to be the most effective form of persuasion: friend-to-friend conversation.

Social media’s interactive nature allows candidates to engage in what can be — or can appear to be — conversations with individual voters. Those voters can forward the candidates’ posts to their friends, extending the candidates’ reach and adding the endorsement of the people who pass the messages on.

But the increasing ability of online campaign strategists to collect and analyze detailed personal information about individual voters has raised privacy concerns.

Polled in May about information sources they tap when deciding how to vote, Americans put family, friends and acquaintances at the top. Bloggers ranked at the bottom, just below advertisements and online comments by people voters don’t know.

Each social medium offers its own political tools. Trying to label one more valuable than the other is “sort of like asking which is your favorite child,” says Phil Noble, a Democratic online political consultant since the 1990s. “Advantage,” says George Washington University political scientist Michael Cornfield, “goes to people who can use all of them.”

But one network clearly dominates. “Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla,” with its large number of users and friend-to-friend networks, Harris says. Politicians communicate with journalists through Twitter and use its brief messages for rapid response to political attacks. Television news media often pick up YouTube videos and give them wider distribution.

These interactive media’s greatest value comes from how they interact with each other, says Ken Deutsch, who manages the digital practice at the Jones Public Affairs communications firm’s Boston office. “If YouTube wasn’t shared on Facebook and Twitter and blogs and those other places, it would have no [political] value,” Deutsch explains. “If you couldn’t link newspaper articles to Twitter, Twitter would have no value.”

Social media enable individuals to enter the public political debate in ways previously reserved to politicians and the traditional news outlets. That poses a challenge to candidates, who can’t control their messages once social media users start passing them around and commenting on them. But candidates also benefit when supporters rise to the candidates’ defense after a social media attack.

Indeed, the millions of citizen postings create an unending barrage of attacks, defenses and counterattacks that demand rapid responses from campaigns. That heightens the likelihood of gaffes, which in turn get amplified in online repostings, adding to the cacophony, and the allure, of social media.

Smart phones and other mobile devices increase the speed and ubiquity of the debate, which individuals can enter whenever they want from wherever they happen to be. The devices’ cameras also enable individuals to record candidates’ gaffes and post them online instantly.

As campaign 2012 races to its conclusion on Nov. 6, here are some questions being raised about social media’s impact on the American political process:

When people signed up for a smart phone app that was to notify them of Romney’s vice presidential pick, the campaign gathered their email addresses and other data. Those who joined Obama’s campaign by clicking “I’m in” on Facebook gave the campaign their Facebook data plus information on their Facebook friends, according to Trippi, the architect of Howard Dean’s Internet-dependent 2004 campaign. “People would want to turn their machines off if they knew everything these campaigns know about them,” he says, only partly in jest.

When campaigns target voters now, Democratic online consultant Noble says, “it’s not [an anonymous] white male voter in this precinct. It’s James Q. Smith on Grand Street.”

That so-called “microtargeting” is quite valuable, according to Mike Zaneis, senior vice president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a New York-based trade group for companies that sell online advertising. In the commercial sector, he says, targeted ads are 2.5 times as effective as nontargeted ones.

Directly addressing a voter’s precise interests through social media allows a campaign to “engage people in detail on issues you might not otherwise have had the time or resources to talk about through traditional media,” says Reilly, the Democratic campaign consultant.

“If you want to reach people who are interested in a particular topic, there are groups and sub-groups for everything in social media with their own thought leaders that you can identify and either advertise to or reach out to directly,” Deutsch of Jones Public Affairs notes.

The practice carries “great potential for abuses of privacy,” according to John Allen Hendricks, chair of the mass communication department at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and co-editor of a book about the 2008 Obama campaign. “I don’t know that there are prominent enough disclaimers on the politicians’ websites to inform the electorate that they are giving up a lot of information that they may not want revealed in the future,” he explains. “We do not know what the campaigns will do with that data after the election is over.”

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer-protection and privacy advocacy group in Washington, D.C., argues that the privacy threat is especially serious because it involves voting. “It’s not about selling books and music and T-shirts,” he says. “It’s about the heart of the democratic process. Do we really want giant political parties and well-funded special interest groups like the Super PACs compiling millions of dossiers on voters and becoming a series of private National Security Agencies or FBIs?”

Chester wants the federal government to adopt “new rules that enable the voters to make the decisions about how their data can be collected and used.” Voters should have to give permission before organizations could gather information about them online, he says. “Retention limits” should allow data to be used only for a short time and not be archived or sold, he adds.

He also worries that microtargeting will enable politicians to distribute false campaign pitches “under the radar, without being accountable to the public fact-checking process.”

Zaneis calls Chester’s under-the-radar warning “a bit of a red herring. It’s no more of a potential problem in the digital world than it is in the offline world,” he says, pointing out that direct-mailers have targeted individuals with postal mail for decades.

Gingrich online director Harris notes that “there’s a reason people who subscribe to Guns magazine get direct-mail pieces about the Second Amendment.”

“If somebody wants to deceive,” Zaneis says, “they’re going to be able to do that in any medium.”

The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s code allows consumers to opt out of being tracked and targeted online, he says, although that doesn’t apply to political organizations that don’t belong to the organization. An opt-in requirement would hinder the operations of the $35-billion online advertising industry, which supports 3 million jobs, he says. Most consumers wouldn’t bother to opt in, even though most also don’t bother to opt out, he says.

“I’m not sure why the Internet should be the redheaded stepchild of the media,” he adds. “You can collect data about people all over the place” offline.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, says federal legislation would be too blunt an instrument.

“Legislation is going to produce privacy protection that is too high for many people and too low for many people,” he says. “My argument is that privacy is a product of personal responsibility. You don’t share what information you don’t want others to have. That way you get custom privacy protection, because you’ve done it yourself.”

Douglas Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, an association of public affairs professionals that studies online political activity, observes that many younger Americans are comfortable revealing information on the Internet because they “just don’t care about privacy as much as middle-aged and older people do.”

After Republicans attacked him for the intemperate remark, Gaspard tweeted an apology, explaining that “I let my excitement [at the Supreme Court’s ruling] get the better of me.” Then he let his Twitter feed go silent for six weeks.

Gaspard’s gaffe is just one example of the polarization and hostility that seem to characterize some online political communication. And the ill feelings are not restricted to political leaders.

A woman in the Houston, Texas, area became so disturbed about the tone of political debate that she declared her Facebook page to be a “Politics-Free zone.” “Let’s all take a deep breath, step back and remember that we are friends — in spite of our political views,” Sandy Mansfield posted.

More than a third of social media users in a Pew Research Center study this year reported receiving a “strong negative reaction” after they posted a political comment.

Explanations for the phenomenon range from the overall polarized political climate to the nature of social media themselves.

The brevity of social media messages tends to “tweak people’s impulses rather than cause them to think,” said Bill Shireman, president of Future 500, a San Francisco consulting firm that helps businesses work with activist groups. “So prejudice and group-think can appear very quickly with few restraints.”

Social media worsen polarization that already exists in American politics, says Deutsch, the online communications manager at Jones Public Affairs. “People follow people they agree with. On Facebook, you’re seeing news put up by friends who are reinforcing your own views.”

ComScore Inc., which measures online activity, this year released a study that found people tend to visit Internet sites that share their political leanings. Some Republicans visit the liberal, for instance, but Democrats account for 70 percent of the time spent at the site. Conversely, Democrats account for just 9 percent of the time spent at the conservative site.

Aaron Smith, who studies politics and the Internet at the Pew Research Center, says most political posts in social media are made by activists with strong views. In one Pew survey, for instance, 66 percent of “very liberal” people said they had “liked” a political post, as did 64 percent of “very conservative” people. Only 41 percent of self-described “moderates” did so. Pew found the same pattern when asking if people had posted political comments.

“They come to this [online] world with a certain set of attitudes and a team mentality, and social networking sites provide a way for them to support their team,” Smith says of the activists. “While you can see ways social networking sites can exacerbate [polarization], in a way they’re only reflecting that broader political culture.”

Social media promote nationalization of politics, just as cable TV news and the Internet in general do, Democratic campaign consultant Reilly says. Nationalization then promotes polarization, as ideological activists from around the country jump into local political debates, he explains.

“No matter where you’re running,” he says, “the challenge to make it about [often-less-polarized] local issues and local candidates is tremendous,” Reilly says.

Former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass., famously proclaimed that “all politics is local,” Reilly noted, but the media now are making it more accurate to say that “all politics is national.”

Social media amplify the heated, negative campaigning that often appears in polarized debates, Reilly says. But well-funded independent organizations tend to drive the negativity through the offline advertisements that they purchase, he adds.

Other aspects of social media can combat polarization and negativity.

While Twitter requires micro-comments and Facebook encourages brevity, tweets and Facebook postings can link to longer documents, and long videos can be posted on YouTube, for example.

“On television, you’re limited to the sound bite you can get on the news and the 30-second ad,” Reilly notes. “On social media, you can be posting as much as you want every day. It’s an avenue for getting more information to people that wasn’t available before social media came about.”

Although people tend to associate with others who have similar beliefs, few people’s networks are devoid of diversity.

Asked in a May survey about the political orientation of their social media contacts, 24 percent of those polled said most were the same as their own, 9 percent said most were different, and 60 percent said there was an even mix. The rest didn’t know or didn’t answer.

“There are plenty of echo chambers, but there also are lots of tunnels among the echo chambers,” the Cato Institute’s Harper says.

“People are on social media to interact with the drama of their lives,” not to form political organizations, Harris says. Their networks tend to be comprised of family and friends. And “not everyone in a family or at a high school or in college agrees on all the same political points.” As a result, he says, “the average person on Facebook is friends with people of diverse political views, religions and backgrounds.”

McKinnon is not alone in his optimism. Low cost and ease of use have led many to view social media as weapons that underfunded candidates and common citizens can use to combat the enormous campaign spending of millionaires and billionaires that was unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens Uniteddecision in 2010. They also view social media as an inexpensive tool for solving problems that defy traditional media.

Social media are “good for niche issues,” Democratic online consultant Noble says, noting that television is too expensive for addressing topics of interest to small groups. Social media offer effective access to young people, who watch less television than their elders, Democratic campaign consultant Reilly says. Because the young are less likely to vote, as well, their cost-per-vote in television advertising can be prohibitive, he adds.

Social media also open an avenue of influence that can’t be tapped by traditional, geographically bound media, according to Deutsch of Jones Public Affairs.

Presidential campaigns concentrate their television spending in the handful of states where the race is close. But “most of us are influenced by people who live outside the media market we live in — our friends, our classmates, our colleagues,” as well as by advertising and by people who live nearby, Deutsch points out. Social media enable those people to be in touch with each other and allow campaigns to try to influence them no matter where they live, he says.

Social media also have become a leveling tool as television advertising becomes less effective.

Zac Moffatt, digital director of the Romney campaign, has identified “off-the-gridders” — people who avoid television commercials by not watching programs when they’re broadcast. Instead, they record shows and fast-forward through the ads later, or they get their commercial-free entertainment from such sources as Netflix.

Surveys found that a third of the residents of Ohio and Virginia — key swing states — fall into that category, watching only sporting events at their scheduled broadcast time, Moffatt said in a panel discussion during the Republican Convention. Advertising that runs next to online search results or in social media offers ways to reach these potential voters, Moffatt said. In addition, he noted, recipients of online advertising can share it with friends, thus extending its reach.

Social media will not replace traditional news sources anytime soon, however. One important reason: Other than information they receive from friends and relatives, people — including young people — don’t trust what they’re told on social media as much as they trust what traditional news outlets tell them.

In a May National Journal survey, three-quarters of Americans polled said they have some or a great deal of trust in public television and public radio. Newspapers and cable news followed close behind with 71 and 70 percent. Next came network news (64 percent), magazines (57) and talk radio (53). Social media finished dead last, with just 30 percent.

Television also topped a 2011 Public Affairs Council survey that asked Americans where they get most of their news. Print newspapers or magazines stood second at 12 percent, well below TV’s 70 percent. Just 1 percent picked social media.

In an August survey for the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg communication school, a majority of young adults ages 18 to 29 said Facebook is their top news source, and a fifth listed Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central cable station’s fake news anchor and commentator. But those sources finished below traditional news media in trust.

“An insurgent candidate with little money can use the Web to catch fire,” former Gingrich online coordinator Harris says. “But every survey continues to show that television is where people are spending most of their time. So, until those numbers change, television will continue to take the lion’s share of the media money.”

The candidates with the lion’s share of the money will be able to buy the lion’s share of television time, which limits social media’s ability to level the field, Deutsch says.

“In a world where there was some regulation of size of donations, social media may have leveled it,” he says. “But, at this point, with the number of individual donors you have to have to make up for the wealthiest donors who support PACs, I don’t think it can be.”

Hendricks of Stephen F. Austin State University agrees that “the wealthy’s ability to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns may overcome the Internet’s people power.” But Cornfield of George Washington University suggests that the enormous amount of cash being poured into this year’s campaigns may, ironically, limit money’s impact in the closing weeks before the election.

“I’m hearing that we’re going to see, because of the rise of Super PACs, much less advertising space available, especially in broadcast and cable TV and radio,” he says. “All the time’s been bought up. That’s forcing campaigns to rely more on Web ads. And there are starting to be anticipated shortages on the favorite Web ad spaces.”


Nascent Revolution

Today’s global Internet can trace its birth to the transmission of one word — “log” — from a computer at the University of California, Los Angeles to a computer at Stanford University about 360 miles up the California coast. The UCLA computer was logging into the Stanford computer on Oct. 29, 1969, to create the first link in a network that now serves about 2 billion users.

The $19,800 contract that funded the first Internet research was paid for by the federal government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to facilitate information exchange among military research facilities. As more computers joined the network, it became known as ARPANET.

To facilitate civilian research, the federal government’s National Science Foundation (NSF) created the Computer Science Network (CSNET) in 1981. Five years later, the foundation established the faster NSFNET. As these early networks began to link to each other, they created a network of networks that became known as the Internet.

The general public didn’t acquire Internet access until the late 1980s, when MCI Mail and CompuServe began selling email services. Earlier in the ’80s, companies offered slow phone-line connections to private networks. In 1989, a service called “The World” offered the public its first full-service access to the Internet.

Hints at the Internet’s eventual wide popularity appeared in the early ’90s, when companies were allowed to conduct commercial operations online and scientists invented the point-and-click navigation system and the graphical browser — a web browser that allows interaction with both graphics and text.

The Internet found an early congressional advocate in Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, who helped turn the Web into a campaign tool when he joined presidential nominee Bill Clinton on the Democratic ticket in 1992. Shortly after they took office in 1993, Clinton and Gore launched the first White House website. Two years later, the Library of Congress created an online legislative information system named “Thomas,” after President Thomas Jefferson, who sold his personal book collection to the library after British troops burned it during the War of 1812. Following the White House lead, members of Congress began to create websites and use email.

Political use of the Web was spreading by the time Clinton and Gore ran for re-election in 1996. Candidates’ websites now contained graphic elements, links to other sites and capabilities for exchanging email with voters. The Republican presidential nominee, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, became the first candidate to promote a website on television, doing so during a debate with Clinton.

Two years later, professional wrestler Jesse Ventura demonstrated the Internet’s political value when he used it in running a successful upstart campaign for Minnesota governor. To help overcome doubts about his qualifications, he posted detailed position papers online. He raised $50,000 in cyberspace — nearly 10 percent of his treasury — and used email to help manage far-flung volunteers.

“We didn’t win the election because of the Internet,” Phil Madsen, Ventura’s webmaster, said. But Ventura “could not have won the election without the Internet.”

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) greatly boosted the Internet’s political value in 1999 when it ruled that campaign contributions charged to credit cards online would be eligible for matching federal funds. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey raised more than $600,000 online that year as he prepared to challenge Gore in the 2000 Democratic presidential primaries, and Arizona Sen. John McCain raised $260,000 in the runup to the GOP contest. McCain then raised $2.7 million online in three days following his upset win over George W. Bush in the Feb. 2 New Hampshire primary.

Gore and Bush won the nomination, but the losers demonstrated the Web’s political potential, which Howard Dean exploited dramatically in 2004.

Dean made the Internet central to his campaign, using its ever-strengthening capabilities to organize, motivate and manage his paid and volunteer workers. His supporters organized meetings at He used the Internet to become the most prolific Democratic fundraiser in history up to that point.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won the nomination but learned from Dean’s Internet prowess. He and Bush both developed sophisticated websites with video and audio files, search capabilities and interactive features. In addition to raising funds online, they recruited volunteers, encouraged supporters to bring their friends and neighbors into the campaign, distributed good news about themselves and attacked their opponent.

Kerry and Bush also:

  • Used their Senate and White House websites to supplement their campaigns’ online activities;
  • Placed targeted advertising on others’ websites;
  • Used email to deploy workers shortly before and on Election Day; and
  • Guided their canvassers with information about individual voters that was gleaned from analyzing huge computer databases.

By voting day, they — along with nearly every other serious effort to influence the election — campaigned online.

Empowering the People

Steve Murphy — managing partner at Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly, the Democratic campaign consulting firm — described online campaigning as a new, more effective way to conduct old-style grassroots campaigning.

“You can’t call them on the phone any more because nobody wants to talk on the phone because they’ve been inundated by telemarketers,” he said. “You can’t knock on the door anymore because nobody’s ever home. But everybody’s always home on the Internet.”

Bush press secretary Scott Stanzel agreed. “Our Internet effort empowers people to go to their neighbors and distribute information on their email lists,” he said. “So we are bringing the campaign back to a very grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor effort.”

Four years later, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois took Internet campaigning to heights not dreamed of by the 2004 activists. McKinnon, the Bush media adviser, called Obama’s 2008 campaign a “seminal, transformative race” and “the year campaigns leveraged the Internet in ways never imagined.”

Obama turned down public financing, which, according to FEC rules, would have limited his spending to $126 million in the primary and general elections, and raised $745 million, including $500 million online — unheard-of figures.

Obama collected more than 13 million email addresses and compiled a million-member audience for text messages. He hired 90 people to run his online operations — Web developers, bloggers, videographers and others — and put them to work on communication, fundraising, grassroots organizing and other tasks. (GOP nominee John McCain hired four.)Obama spent tens of millions of dollars on Internet ads. He campaigned on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as on lesser-known sites such as AsianAvenue and BlackPlanet. He even bought ads in video games, such as billboards along the highways of the Xbox racing game “Need for Speed: Carbon.” He also “killed public financing for all time,” in the words of Steve Schmidt, McCain’s chief campaign strategist.

Although social media had far less reach in 2008 than 2012, they offered hints of their potential. Black Eyed Peas singer’s “Yes We Can” video and “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama” composed and sung by Leah Kauffman and lip-synched by actress Amber Lee Ettinger (better known as “Obama Girl”) went spectacularly viral. On a more serious note, Hollywood film producer Robert Greenwald created several videos showing McCain contradicting himself. Dean’s online manager Trippi says the songs showed, importantly, that social media enable private citizens to become a notable part of the campaign discussion with no assist from the candidates.

Conservative Victories

In the 2010 elections, social media contributed to many conservative victories at all levels of government. ComScore said Twitter “played a key role, providing a broadcast channel for candidates to voice their thoughts, ideas and opinions directly to their constituents and public at large.”

According to Facebook’s Harbath, social media helped unhappy, unorganized conservatives locate each other and make the Tea Party a political force. “There wasn’t a single group that said: ‘Let’s create the Tea Party,’” she said. “It was a lot of people finding themselves through social media.”

YouTube and Facebook had cosponsored debates with CNN and ABC during the 2008 presidential campaign, and the YouTube sessions included viewer questions submitted through the platform. They cosponsored debates again during the 2012 GOP presidential campaign, with Facebook also enabling viewer-submitted questions. In addition, an entire GOP debate took place on Twitter. The candidates made two or three 140-character Twitter posts in response to the questions.

The GOP candidates made extensive use of social media, and some political analysts say that probably helped keep this year’s Republican primary contest going for an unusually long time.

“Chunks of the Republican base, including Tea Partiers, anti-abortion activists and evangelicals, are using social media to form self-reinforcing factions within the larger party that are less and less susceptible to what nominal party leaders may want them to do,” according to Micah Sifry, a networking consultant who studies how the Internet and other technologies are changing politics. As a result, the various conservative factions were less likely to heed pleas to unite around frontrunner Romney, Sifry said.

That’s not the sole reason the primary race lasted so long, Harbath says, but “it allowed [less-established] candidates like Herman Cain a lot of momentum because of something they said that was spread on social media.”

According to Deutsch of Jones Public Affairs, social media enabled underdogs to continue raising money, finding supporters and engaging with them.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., for instance, credited Facebook with playing an important role in her surprise victory in the Iowa straw poll. Former Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum created a Facebook page for every state and used the pages to organize supporters. He also used Fundly, a social media fundraising site, to collect more than $230,000 through nearly 3,000 supporters who created Fundly pages of their own to seek contributions from friends. And Gingrich created the #250 Twitter category to promote his promise to lower gasoline prices to $2.50 a gallon.

But candidates don’t get to campaign by themselves in social media. Obama bought advertising that sent an Obama tweet on energy policy to everyone who searched for #250 gas. Similarly, Romney bought Google advertising that displayed criticism of Gingrich to anyone who searched for information on the former House speaker.

Current Situation

Courting ‘Likes’

As the Nov. 6 election draws near, Obama and Romney are locked in battle to rack up as many YouTube subscribers, Facebook “likes” and Twitter retweets as possible. But political analysts view the importance of such metrics in different ways, and some say the data can be unreliable or even bogus.

Trying to enhance his social media presence, Romney sent a plea to his Facebook friends on Aug. 21: “We’re almost to 5 million likes — help us get there! ‘Like’ and share this with your friends and family to show you stand with Mitt!”

That same day, Obama’s Facebook page boasted more than 27 million likes — more than five times Romney’s and just one piece of evidence that the president is running far ahead of his Republican challenger in online popularity.

By the second week of October, Obama had 29.4 million Facebook “likes” to Romney’s 8.6 million, 20.7 million Twitter followers to Romney’s 1.3 million and 237,000 YouTube subscribers to Romney’s 23,000.

Moffatt, the digital director of Romney’s campaign, dismisses those statistics as “vanity metrics” that don’t tell how much effect the candidate’s online efforts are having. “List size has no bearing,” he said during the GOP convention. “It really doesn’t matter how many people you have following you if you don’t have people really engaged with your campaign.”

Moffatt prefers measures such as Facebook’s “talking about” metric, which is the weekly total of the number of unique visitors who interact with a Facebook page by taking such actions as “liking,” commenting or sharing, plus the viral effect of their friends doing such things as resharing. At the beginning of October, Romney’s “talking about” number was 1.7 million, Obama’s 1.4 million. But on Oct. 8 Obama had pulled ahead, 3.2 million to 2.9 million.

Moffatt also likes to compare those kinds of statistics with the candidate’s fan base. Those 2.9 million interacting with Romney’s site represented 34 percent of his likes, compared with Obama’s 11 percent.

Complicating assessments of the campaigns’ relative standing in social media are companies that will create fake Twitter followers for as little as a penny apiece. Two companies say they have developed methods for detecting fake followers.

Barracuda Labs, a threat-assessment firm, said most of a 117,000 jump in Romney followers in one day in July were fake. StatusPeople, which develops tools for managing use of social networks, alleged that 30 percent of Obama’s followers are fake and 40 percent are inactive. For Romney it’s 15 percent fake and 31 percent inactive, StatusPeople said.

Both campaigns deny buying followers, and others have questioned the accuracy of the analysis. Barracuda research scientist Jason Ding said it is impossible to determine who is responsible for buying the fake followers — the campaigns, campaign supporters or opponents trying to embarrass the campaigns.

As hazy as social media metrics may sometimes seem, both Obama and Romney have made huge strides in building online support, though Obama is widely perceived as still having the edge.

It appears Republicans have made “a great amount of progress in closing the technology gap,” says Hendricks of Stephen F. Austin State University. “But I do not believe Romney and the Republicans have quite caught up with the Obama campaign.”

Costas Panagopoulos, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University and editor of the bookPoliticking Online, says counting Obama’s social media contacts may overstate the president’s current Internet strength. “Much of Obama’s online following is a result of the 2008 election cycle,” and some may no longer be in his camp, Panagopoulos notes.

But having the older operation can give Obama a head start on activities that matter now, Hendricks points out, saying that Obama released a smart-phone app to promote his campaign in 2010, something Romney’s organization didn’t do until 2012. This year, Obama distributed an app that gives door-to-door canvassers access to voter registration lists, neighborhood maps, talking points and the ability to process contributions.

Incumbency Edge

And Obama benefits from incumbency online as well as off. His weekly radio addresses also appear as videos on YouTube, where they can be viewed at any time. Press briefings and other White House events also are posted to YouTube. Videos are made available at the White House Facebook site as well.

Obama also leads in other recent statistical measures.

His convention acceptance speech generated 52,756 tweets in the minute following its conclusion, the highest per-minute rate ever recorded for a political event, while Romney’s acceptance speech generated 14,289. The figures were 28,003 when the president joined Michelle Obama on stage in the first minute following her speech, 6,195 when Romney joined his wife Ann.

As of Sept. 24, Obama’s acceptance speech had been viewed 4.9 million times on YouTube, compared with Romney’s 1.1 million. Michelle Obama’s convention speech had outdrawn Ann Romney’s YouTube audience, 3.2 million to 560,000. Perhaps even more troubling for Romney: Clint Eastwood’s lecture to an empty chair drew three times the YouTube viewers as Romney’s speech, as did the surreptitiously recorded video that shows Romney saying 47 percent of Americans don’t “take personal responsibility” for their own lives.

One of the most interesting developments in this election, according to George Washington University’s Cornfield, is the campaigns’ ability to use social media and powerful computers to conduct on-the-fly experiments that can lead to rapid changes in campaign tactics.

Likening it to medical research, Cornfield describes a campaign delivering a message to a “treatment group” while a “control group” doesn’t get the message. The campaign then measures how well the message worked. Or the campaign tries variations on a message with more than one group and determines which works better. “It’s hard to know, when a campaign switches from message to message, whether they’re undisciplined or experimenting,” Cornfield says.

Moffatt, Romney’s digital director, termed Facebook “a way for us to test messages for online advertising and other platforms, because it’s instant feedback.” Twitter, also, “helps us keep our finger on the pulse of the fast-moving pace of new media,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said.

The campaigns use the experiments’ findings to guide advertising in all media. Both have sophisticated strategies for advertising beside the results of online searches. Keeping an ear to what people were talking about earlier this year, for instance, Obama bought advertising beside Google results for “Warren Buffett,” “Obama singing,” “Obama birthday” and “Obama [NCAA basketball tournament] bracket.”

That strategy isn’t restricted to presidential campaigns, notes Deutsch of Jones Public Affairs. After Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., sparked a nationwide furor by saying victims of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant, Sen. Claire McCaskill, his Democratic opponent in the Missouri U.S. Senate race, put fundraising solicitations next to searches on Akins’ name, Deutsch says.

Obama even repeated his 2008 tactic of advertising on video games — this year in the “Madden NFL 13” football game, the free online game site and mobile phone games such as “Tetris.”

Close and Personal

Candidates are tapping new social media to connect with voters on a personal level.

At Pinterest — which resembles a scrapbook or a refrigerator door and appeals primarily to women — Ann Romney and Michelle Obama emphasize their roles as wife and mother. Romney identifies herself as “Mom of five boys, Grandmother of 18.” Among her posts are recipes, crafts and family photographs. Michelle Obama also posts recipes and family photos as well as pictures of “people who inspire me.”

The candidates also created Pinterest pages. Romney’s includes lists of his favorite movies, television shows and books — including the science fiction novelBattlefield Earth by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Obama’s includes family photos but focuses primarily on the campaign.

Gingrich online director Harris called Pinterest “a great way to humanize a candidate. The Romney campaign has done a very good job of using Pinterest to showcase that Ann Romney’s interests are very similar to the interests of average female voters in this country.”

Both candidates also post favorite songs on the music site Spotify and participate on other social media, Hendricks of Stephen F. Austin State University says. “Both the Democrats and the Republicans realize that they need to adopt those platforms and reach the demographic groups who are using them,” he says.

During the presidential campaign’s last big events — the October debates — social media provided platforms for users to watch, evaluate and discuss the clashes while they were in progress. The first debate, on Oct. 3, for instance, generated more than 10 million tweets during its 90-minute run, making it the most-tweeted-about event in U.S. politics.

The debates illustrate one challenge to traditional news media that Twitter’s Adam Sharp noticed during the conventions. Tweets would spike at points during a speech, peak in the first minute after the speech ended, then decline rapidly over 10 or 15 minutes, he said in a panel discussion during the Democratic convention.

During the first debate, tweeting peaked when Obama and Romney clashed with moderator Jim Lehrer over control of the proceedings and when they discussed Medicare.

“By the time the pundits have actually gotten on the air and are sitting around the round table talking about it, the audience’s conversation has already moved on,” Sharp said. “Viewers are no longer waiting for that post-game analysis. They are participating in it in real time.”


Creative Approaches

Candidates are poised to end this election year with a big bang as they deploy social media to get voters to the polls.

“I expect we’re going to see a social-media-based campaign geared toward turnout that is like something we’ve never seen before,” says Pinkham of the Public Affairs Council. “There probably will be a lot of creative approaches to how social media can be used to get people to show up to vote. They’ll be saving some of their best ideas for last.”

“It’s not just connecting people online,” says Trippi, the architect of Democrat Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “It’s connecting the online army to do the hard work of getting out in the community, knocking on doors and making phone calls.”

The effort will be especially important for Democrats, Trippi says, because of recently enacted voter-ID laws and cutbacks in early voting that are expected to make voting more difficult for Democrat-leaning young people, minorities and the elderly.

“I suspect this is going to be a very close election,” Trippi says, “and the ability of Obama to activate his network could very well be the difference in Ohio or Florida,” which are viewed as key swing states. “If Romney’s beating Obama by 10 points” — which polls indicate is unlikely — “no social network makes that up.”

Experts say it’s difficult to foresee what’s likely to occur in future elections.

“One thing we know for sure is that the social media landscape is continually changing and evolving,” Panagopoulos of Fordham University points out, “and campaigns and political parties will have to adapt to the changing circumstances.”

Trippi envisions “a lot of kids in their garages who are working on really compelling technology. We’re going to wake up in two months and there will be something that will totally change and empower people in a completely different way from what Twitter has. These networks, as big as they are, are going to be dwarfed four years from now.”

Because of the technology they’ve developed, Obama, Romney and their social media experts will remain influential by helping candidates in future campaigns, Hendricks of Stephen F. Austin State University says.

“The Obama camp has been constantly building on and improving their platform,” he notes. “They’ll continue to do that beyond the 2012 campaign, and the Republicans will continue to build on what they started this year. This does not end after 2012.”

Trippi also sees a “lasting impact” from this year’s campaigns. “The Dean campaign had a lasting impact, and I think it laid the foundation for Obama,” he says. “They took that and went far higher in orbit than we ever did. We were like the Wright brothers, and they landed a guy on the moon.”

Technological developments will continue to make nuts-and-bolts campaigning more effective and efficient, says Harris, the Gingrich campaign’s online director. For example, he says, “Campaign advertising is going to get to a degree of accuracy that was almost unimaginable when direct mail was started in the ’80s.”

“Big Data” will grow even bigger, Trippi says. Panagopoulos sees online fundraising becoming more dominant. Rapid improvement in mobile devices will continue, and their popularity will continue to grow, Pew’s Smith says. As a result, campaigns will acquire continually improving capabilities for “getting out political messages and encouraging people to take action where they are.”

At some point, Trippi says, “an independent candidacy or a new party is going to happen, [because] there are only two reasons left to be in a party from a tactical point of view: money and organization.” Both increasingly can be addressed outside the old institutions, he notes.

Television’s influence will diminish gradually, and the Internet’s importance will increase, Harris says. But Smith warns against predicting television’s demise any time soon.

“People layer the new things on top of their existing communication,” Smith says. “Just because we have text messaging doesn’t mean people don’t talk on the phone anymore. All of these things fit into the same big basket, and people pick the tool that’s right for them based on their needs of the moment.”

Hendricks says that won’t happen until social media “are perceived by the citizens as being a reliable source of information,” which they aren’t now.

All of this will make old-fashioned campaigning more important, Pinkham says. “More and more money is going to be allocated toward the ground game to encourage turnout and to get volunteers who will try to help persuade undecided voters.” But much of that will occur through social media.

“Personal contact still matters,” Pinkham adds. “There’s still no substitute for the candidate making personal appearances. What Obama did on reddit was the social media equivalent of making a personal appearance.”