As of October 2012, Facebook, the world’s largest social networking website, had more than 1 billion active users—that’s active users alone. In 2008, Facebook only had about 100 million users. And yet, even then, social media was transforming the political landscape. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and election are considered to be a milestone in the history of politics online. Much of Obama’s popularity stemmed from his use of social media.
This past year, we saw the influence of social media in political campaigning taken to a whole new level. One of the things which makes social media such a unique aspect of a political campaign is that it cannot be entirely controlled. To a large degree, social media drives itself. When a politician makes a statement, that statement gains momentum, so that overnight, something which was said as a passing remark might be transformed into one of the biggest buzz lines of a campaign — for better or worse.
Here are some interesting statistics from the latest presidential campaign. Barack Obama’s campaign posted 29 tweets per day and four videos on YouTube each day. Mitt Romney’s campaign posted only 1 tweet per day and uploaded one video a day to YouTube. Both candidates achieved firsts with social media. President Obama organized the first Twitter town hall meeting in 2011, where he actively received and answered queries made by other Twitter users in a live event. Mitt Romney was the first candidate to buy a trending topic on Twitter. Notice how much more engaged Obama was than Romney — and notice who won the election. A huge increase in the number of voters in the past couple of elections (versus the number who voted in previous years) may also point toward social media as a driving force.
A ton of new memes emerged during the 2012 presidential campaign. Many of these were derived from comments which were made in passing. Which of these can you remember just from reading their names?
- Mitt Romney Etch-a-Sketch.
- You didn’t build that.
- Romney’s 47% comment.
- Binders full of women.
When Romney backtracked on his 47% comment and said that it was completely wrong, internet users were then amused to discover that a Google image search for the phrase completely wrong resulted in numerous pictures of Mitt Romney—which only compounded the problem he’d already created for himself.
Social media is no longer an aside when it comes to political campaigning. It is as important, perhaps in some ways even more important, than traditional media coverage. It’s coverage which can’t be bought and which is much harder to control, perhaps because social media coverage comes with a sense of humor. It’s one thing when the press reports a comment, and quite another when it’s passed around as the funniest thing that anyone has heard all week. Humor is powerful; it cements the impressions we receive and makes them impossible to forget. A lot of the remarks made during the 2012 campaign season by Mitt Romney’s campaign were ridiculous enough to be both funny and disturbing to social media users, and above all, unforgettable. Those memes will still be around in four years, in eight, in twelve. Once something is posted on the internet it can damage a politician’s reputation forever – and a very demanding challenge for communication experts to deal with its effects.
This is a guest post by Nate Miller, a veteran freelance writer and guest poster on business, economy, tech and current affairs. If you are planning a career in politics, check out gspmonline.com.