Blog Post

Social Media Report Card? The Use of New Media in Politics

An area of research that I'm particularly interested in but have not had the opportunity to develop nearly as much as I would, is how new media can be used as a tool for campaigning during elections. I recently gave a lecture for a political communication course about new media and politics, with a particular focus on the current campaign that I thought I might share.

 

There is, of course, some background to discuss before we jump right into looking at YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I began my lecture with a question: what was the first campaign to use media as a tool? If you guessed Jesse "The Body" Ventura in 1998, you would be close but incorrect. While Ventura was the first person to really give extensive credit to the Internet as a way to foster discussion with supporters and ultimately get him elected, it was actually Bob Dole who, in 1996, created a website for his presidential campaign. The site consisted almost entirely of information from brochures that were handed out at political rallies, the use of new media was not lost on others, and by the next presidential election in 2000, the use of the Internet as a viable tool for campaiging sky rocketed.

 

As of 2000, the PEW Institute believed that just over 50% of Americans were actively using the Internet, but less than 20% were using it for the purpose of finding out political campaign information. Still, the 2000 election showed vast steps in how a candidate could use the Internet to their advantage: John McCain reportedly earned 1.4 million dollars through online campaigining, and sites became far more interactive; in fact, by 2002 most individuals running for office had a website to direct potential voters to both for information and donations.

 

It was the 2004 presidential election however that got dubbed "The Internet Election", and it was one candidate in particular, Howard Dean who did most of the work to prove just how viable using the Internet could be. Before the primaries had even begun, Dean had raised $40 million dollars. It was perhaps the constant media display through other choices made by Dean that led to the collapse of his campaign, but no one doubted that he was onto something when it came to using new media.

 

In 2006, YouTube became a more main stream location to share videos; and for those campaigning, a cheap alternative to get their message out. For myself personally, being from Missouri, it was the Michael J Fox ad for Claire McCaskill that caught my attention. This focus on a campaign issue (stem cell research) through the use of popular and familiar individual personally effected by the issue (Michael J Fox) became a hot topic of controversy as the video gained millions of view on the site.

 

All this brings us to 2008, the first presidential election where social media had really taken off; after all, in 2004, less than a handful of schools even had access to Facebook, and by 2008 the site was boasting several hundred million users. The same PEW study cited prior notes that those using the Internet to learn more about campaigns went from less than 20% to well over 50%, and the one site that many believe helped Obama connect with young voters was Facebook; with groups like "1 million strong for Obama" youth were connecting through the site to discuss a political movement. In addition to Facebook the growth of user-generated videos in support of candidates on YouTube was also rising, and adding into the mix blogs, it was the 2008 election that brought to the forefront the variety of ways in which a candidate can utilize digital technology to connect with potential voters.

 

What does this say then for the upcoming 2012 campaign? A recent article from MMI Public Relations decided over the summer to grade GOP candidates based on their social media presence, raising the question of whether or not a presence through new media can forecast and illustrate the likelihood that a candidate is voted for. The blog has Michele Bachmann and Newt Gringrich as the only two to receive a grade of A (even then, they got an A-) while most other candidates received varying levels of B, with two candidates (Santorum and Huntsman) recieving a C and D, respectively. But what do these letter grades mean, and can it give us insight into the probability of who might be considered for the nomination by the Republican party? A quick search of Facebook for most recent statistics reveals that Herman Cain has around 360,000 followers, Ron Paul has 570,000, Michele Bachmann has 460,000, Mitt Romney as over 1 million followers, and Rick Perry (not previously a part of the article mentioned above) has just 170,000. Compared to the latest polls for candidates, which has Cain and Romney as the main contenders, we see some discrepancies. 

 

While social and new media certaintly can't dictate who will win, it is important consider how developing an online presence during a campaign can help to spread the word and ensure election. It will be interesting to see as the 2012 election unfolds just how much of a role new media will play!

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2 comments

 

This is a very interesting topic and its one that a lot of people haven't even bothered to ponder, I know I am one of those people. As I was reading your article, I started feeling some anxiety. While the Internet is a fantastic place to market oneself, I think it may be slightly problematic because the websites hosted by the candidate will obviously have a bias and are not likely to present "both sides of the story." Additionally, those seeking information about a candidate(s) have the option to avoid researching all the candidates. This option is almost non-existent when an unbiased party in newspapers and television present information about candidates.  

So, my question is how might digital media affect the notion of a fair election? Are their guidelines in place to regulate the information disseminated? 

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Thanks for the feedback! I think you're right that there's some anxiety to be had when you consider how one-sided and biased a view someone could get by simply researching a single candidate versus everyone/both-sides of an issue. 

 

That said, I'm not sure that's a problem that should be limited to, and considered an effect of, digital media. If anything I would probably be willing to argue the opposite side--take for example my primary research focus of Facebook. While I would consider myself liberal, I don't limit my Facebook friends to those who would list the same political views. As such, the media and information that streams through my news feed is not limited to information on democracts; I see quotes and news stories and video links galore regarding candidates on both sides of the fence, and I think a person who chooses to hide or focus strictly on one side is someone who would do that regardless of the media in question.

 

But, I could be wrong. It would certainly be an interesting research project to consider! A good friend of mine, Dr. Ben Warner, recently completed his dissertation at the University of Kansas about political extremism and how media may contribute to that. His findings differed based on the type of extremist views, but is a really fascinating read if you have the time. 

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