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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / CAMPAIGN 2012

Social Engagement: What Happens When You 'Like' Barack or Mitt

How social media has changed the politics game.

President Barack Obama uses his BlackBerry.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Do you like Barack Obama? More than 26 million Facebook users do. Log on to the president’s Facebook page, run by his reelection campaign, and you can see whether any of your friends approve of the president and whether they posted about him recently. You can share that content yourself, or perhaps leave a snarky comment. 

But know this: when you engage with the Obama campaign through social media, the campaign’s digital team takes detailed notes. And when you interact with Republican presidential campaigns on social media, their respective digital teams are playing just as close attention.

Social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ are just that: social. A candidate’s remarks can now be picked up and broadcast around the Internet in real time -- and anyone with an Internet connection can fire commentary right back. And just as it makes it easier for you to find out about a candidate, it also makes it easier for a campaign to find out about you. In 2008, then-candidate Obama’s use of social media was revolutionary; in 2012, the ubiquity of social-media platforms has made immediacy and intimacy the new normal.


Campaigns “have to be nimble. They have to be listening as much as they’re broadcasting,” said Ryan Davis, director of social media strategy at Blue State Digital, a firm that advises the Obama campaign.

On social-media platforms, supporters, opponents, journalists, and campaign staffers can all try—second by second—to drive the conversation. That fast-paced, open exchange is exemplified by Twitter, a site where users can share breaking news and minute-by-minute commentary.

“With Twitter in some cases, this is a 24-second news cycle,” said Vincent Harris, founder and CEO of Harris Media LLC and an adviser to former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Fail to do online damage control, and you risk ceding control of your campaign narrative.

Most Americans still get their political information from cable news. But today, roughly half the U.S. population has a Facebook page, and—although a small proportion of Americans are active Twitter users—cable-news coverage increasingly responds to what has caught fire on Twitter. A video posted to YouTube can reach anyone with an Internet connection.

“There’s tremendous media ping-pong,” said Patrick Ruffini, president at Engage and a former adviser to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign. “Something that starts in social media can be picked up in traditional media, and suddenly everyone on Twitter is talking about it.” 

Strategists and operatives use Twitter to score political points, sometimes with humor. The Romney and Obama camps bantered on Twitter this week over the way the candidates treat their dogs.  

From a campaign’s perspective, social media tools have two obvious benefits: they’re a cheap, instantaneous way to reach and rally supporters, and they’re a window into how the political debate is playing out in real time. Analytical tools can sort through Twitter’s chatter, giving campaigns more information on how a message is being received and what opponents are saying. Facebook and YouTube analytics show campaigns what’s being shared, and can provide them with some data on who’s doing the sharing.

Campaigns try to spread their message through social platforms by developing content that people will want to share, particularly images, short videos, pithy aphorisms, and personal notes from the candidate. But here’s the problem: Once the content is put online, it’s hard to control what users do with it.

The Obama campaign tried to rally support for the health care reform law on Twitter last month by promoting the hashtag #ILikeObamacare. Within minutes, opponents of the law had appropriated the hashtag, tweeting things like “#ILikeObamacare because now my prostate exam won’t hurt as much as the higher taxes I have to pay for it.” What was supposed to rally supporters became a rallying cry for opponents.

The most-watched YouTube video created by the Romney campaign, ‘Bump in the Road,’ has been viewed about 400,000 times in the 10 months it has been online. Compare that to the YouTube parody video, ‘Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up,’ created by an Australian student: The video went viral on the Internet last month and has hit over 3 million views. Experts point out that volume of views doesn’t mean everything: Many of the viewers of the parody video may have been unable or unlikely to vote for Romney.

Social-media tools are great for challenger candidates and activists, because they provide a cheap and easy way to find and organize fellow supporters. The tea party group FreedomWorks used social-media tools to unseat moderate Republicans in 2010, and plans to redouble its efforts in 2012. By democratizing the conversation and empowering individuals, social-media tools -- really the Internet in general—creates a more fast-paced, diffuse media environment, where a chance comment made in a TV interview (think Romney as an Etch A Sketch) can instantly be picked up and broadcast to news sources around the world. 

Social-media tools provide campaigns with another, less obvious opportunity: With so much personal information now being shared online, analyzing all that personal data allows campaigns to learn more about their supporters. Campaigns can use personal data from Facebook profiles to figure out if viewers of a certain show are more likely to back a certain candidate, for example.

“Obviously, these types of studies and analysis have been done in the past. They’re not new,” Ruffini said. But with more and more people sharing personal details online, sifting through all that data could make online advertizing and messaging highly individualized. 

 “In many ways, this is going to be the election of big data and social data,” Ruffini said. The Obama campaign, Ruffini said, is “applying commercial-grade data mining to politics for the first time.” 

Using social-media data to target voters is still in its infancy, experts say. On Facebook, the easiest way to target voters is to create a targeted Facebook page: a page for supporters living in Ohio, for example.  “I think that’s going to be an intersection between the microtargeting and the message,” said Eric Frenchman, chief Internet strategist at Campaign Solutions.

A campaign’s biggest data-collection opportunity may be through its website and apps, not through social-media platforms. doesn’t just record when visitors donate or sign up to attend an event; the site also collects ‘passive’ data, like the IP addresses of computers that access the site and the location of mobile devices that interact with the campaign’s mobile app.

Experts say that e-mail is still the single best way to reach individuals and to raise money online. E-mail, Frenchman said, is “like a key” to a campaign’s database of supporters.

“With e-mail, you can really segment,” Davis said. The Obama campaign tracks who opens the campaign’s e-mails, and tailors messages to reflect whether the individual receiving the message has donated to the campaign before and the kind of events he or she has previously attended.

But these days, e-mail inboxes are overflowing, Twitter feeds are constantly updating, and most people don’t go on Facebook to find out more about a campaign—they go to look at photos of their cousin’s wedding. Social media is both a messaging opportunity and a messaging challenge -- a new way to learn about and target supporters, but also a place where opponents can seize upon and subvert a carefully crafted message.

“The question is, are the swing voters influenceable by social media? And how much does it cost to influence them? ” said Peter Pasi, executive vice president at Emotive LLC and an adviser to Sen. Rick Santorum’s campaign.

This November, campaigns will fight to ensure that their candidate’s message is the last thing voters sees on their smartphones as they walk into the voting booth. Whether or not voters respond is up to them.

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