Social Networking Sites “Like” the 2012 Election

Veronica Jauriqui is Special Projects Manager at the Norman Lear Center.

www.usnews-1That ranty Facebook friend? You know, the one whose incessant political tirades you find just a tad offensive? Maybe you just think he’s unpleasant. Or you’ve considered the ultimate death knell of the “unfriend” button.

It turns out your friend might have been on to something.

In a study released last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, about 1 in 6 people said they had “changed their views about a political issue” after reading about it on a social networking site (SNS). Though even Pew acknowledges this as a “modest” influence at best, you can’t deny the necessity of a social media component to any political action campaign.

It’s been four years since then-candidate Barack Obama and his crack team of social media strategists leveraged the power of SNS to connect with young and previously ignored constituencies, raising millions of dollars and winning the election in the process.

At the time, I was a graduate student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and had the chance to study the presidential election and the unprecedented role social media was beginning to play in the campaign. My study was small and qualitative, representing a handful of young potential voters and how they connected to candidates and issues online and in social networks. It was a chicken-vs-egg study. Can you build engagement online? Or do the already engaged flock to SNS to spread their political messages? The results showed that those who were already politically active and motivated used social networks as another means of spreading their message. Engagement offline begets engagement online, and not vice versa.

But that was 2008, which – digitally speaking – was light years ago. For one, candidate Obama had a MySpace page and Twitter was still in its infancy. Facebook had a mere 100 million users (compared to the 900 million it has today).

Sites like Foursquare, Pinterest and Google+ didn’t even exist. Add to this the explosion of mobile devices and apps and the fact that the now ubiquitous iPad was only unveiled two years ago. It’s a different playing field not just for politicians but for those looking to connect politically online.

This election season, both the Romney and Obama campaigns have adapted quickly to the changing modes of social media. Both camps have incorporated mobile applications (Romney announced his vice presidential choice of Paul Ryan via Mitt’s VP app). And in an insightful attempt to court the coveted women’s vote, the candidates’ spouses, Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, joined the predominantly female-centric SNS, Pinterest.

Obama may have been relentlessly hyped as the first “social media president” after the 2008 election, but 2012 is the first truly social media campaign. Today, 66% of American adults are on some kind of SNS. As we’ve come to understand and appreciate the “conversation” that social networks allow, it’s hard to ignore how the online tenor has become decidedly more political, especially in recent months.

When President Obama accepted his party’s nomination last week, it was viewed by 35.7 million people, and set a new Twitter record for 52,756 tweets per minute. (Twitter’s new Political Index is an intriguing way to measure Twitter impact for each candidate.)

It seems impossible to escape the political dialogue online yet in reality and according to the Pew study, it’s only a fraction of SNS users who engage in politics online. A majority (88%) of those surveyed said they post “little or nothing” related to politics, and 59% said their friends post little or nothing political. But it also confirmed on a larger scale what my small survey found four years ago: those who are politically engaged offline are more likely to use social media for political purposes. If SNS have the possibility of influencing 16 percent of users and given the fact that 8% of registered voters are currently undecided, the potential for social networks to be points of influence is extremely high.

How the changes in SNS will impact this coming election is anyone’s guess. Social networking sites are not passive experiences, and more people engaged in political discussion online means more engaged voters. But — as the joke goes — if online activism could predict the presidential election, we’d be swearing in Ron Paul as president.

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