In the age of social media, much of the counter-narrative to the Republican National Convention is playing out on Twitter. The tenor of the commentary varies, from documentary fact-checking to raw sarcasm. What’s notable is that in terms of size and reach, official campaign operatives take a backseat to activist bloggers and partisan organizations that are able to fire rapid responses to networks of followers, which in the aggregate can exceed the size of cable-television audiences.
A large-scale event such as the convention provides an ideal opportunity for activists seeking to alter the story line. Judd Legum, editor in chief for the liberal blog ThinkProgress and formerly research director for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, calls it a “parallel conversation.” Legum spent Tuesday night tweeting dozens of real-time rebuttals of claims made in convention speeches to his network of more than 150,000 followers.
By contrast, the official fact-checking apparatus of the Obama campaign, tweeting as TruthTeam 2012, has an audience of only 42,000. Some Obama surrogates have larger audiences. David Axelrod, for instance, has north of 122,000 followers on Twitter, but he largely kept his powder dry during the first night of convention speeches.
Part of the goal is to influence supporters and supply potential advocates with information and talking points. But another part of the equation is the mainstream media and influential insiders, said Chris Harris, the communications director for the liberal PAC American Bridge, the group that first publicized footage of Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., making his now-infamous comments on “legitimate rape” and unwanted pregnancy.
Harris uses social media, he says, “to make sure people within the Beltway aren’t taking the Romney narrative at face value.” It’s not clear whether this approach is effective in winning converts. Harris admits that, to a certain extent, it’s “preaching to the choir.”
One key difference is that on Twitter, the choir does some preaching of its own.
Beth Becker, a social-media strategist who specializes in politics, advises clients to pay close attention to activists with large followings, but especially those who are consistently cited and retweeted by their followers. The question is, “How much do these people move your message for you?” she says.
Twitter also provides partisans a way to shape the press narrative. “There’s nothing that proves that live-tweeting a speech has a long-term lasting impact with the general population,” Becker said. But done properly, to a list of influential followers, the effort can “promote things that the press then take notice of.”
Activists can reach journalists on Twitter while they’re “forming their opinions, before they write the story,” Legum says. Information from ThinkProgress’s live-tweeting efforts during the Republican primary debates bubbled up into cable commentary and newspaper stories.
On the flip side, by watching Twitter, an activist or communications professional can see conventional wisdom coalesce in real time. Tracking reaction to Ann Romney’s prime-time speech, Legum noticed early on that she was “exceeding expectations,” while tweets about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s keynote speech pointed out how he wasn’t mentioning Romney.
“That was about 10, 15 minutes into the speech,” Legum says. “You get a sense right away of these kinds of perceptions. It can be valuable from a communications perspective,” he said.