The Republicans’ “convention without walls” strategy puts online coverage of the event on a GOP-branded YouTube page, with a dollop of spin that includes social-media posts from Romney supporters, space to type in tweets, and a button for adding hashtags that Republicans want to see on the trending list.
Outside of the campaign bubble, however, the social-media view is a little different. Judging by Twitter’s trending topics, users are more interested in influencing the vote in the MTV Music Video Awards than swaying potential voters in the presidential race. But whether the subject is Mitt Romney versus President Obama or Justin Bieber versus the boy band One Direction, the question remains: Does social-media activism have a persuasive quality that rivals that of TV?
Zac Moffatt, digital director for the Romney campaign, said social-media practitioners are beginning to unlock its power to persuade. At a National Journal briefing on Tuesday, Moffatt cited this as a key difference between the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. Facebook and Twitter create a “huge echo chamber that redefines the way that messages get out,” he said. Adam Sharp, who heads government, news, and social innovation at Twitter, speaking at the same event, cited research suggesting that some voter groups are more likely to be influenced by a candidate’s tweets than by their own personal networks.
Although the campaigns are investing staff and effort in social media, the money is going into traditional media, said Nicco Melo, who was webmaster for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid and now works as a political consultant and lecturer at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “I don’t think that online persuasion is well understood,” Melo said. “There’s no comparable effect online.”
“Obama’s going to raise $500 million online and spend, like, every freaking dime on TV and radio,” Melo said. He believes the reason the digitally savvy Obama campaign is focused on television is that people go online “with intention to pursue specific content. You’re not persuadable when you’re online.”
Television audiences are fracturing and disappearing, Melo says, but the Internet is not necessarily filling in the gap. While TV spots use “osmosis from sheer repetition,” it’s not clear that this can be as effective on the Web.
Social media can help get traction for stories that might not register initially with the press. Moffatt noted that Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment rumbled just beneath the surface on social media for a few days before emerging as a leading campaign narrative. Obama made the remark in a speech in which he highlighted the importance to the private sector of government workers who build bridges and other infrastructure. But Republicans seized on it to suggest that Obama was unwilling to give credit to entrepreneurs who build businesses. Now, a button on the YouTube convention page lets people add the hashtag #WeBuilt to their tweets with the click of a mouse.
“I see the bones of something really interesting that could change things in the next decade,” Melo said. For the moment, Twitter is more for insiders and influencers, not a way to influence voters in large numbers. “Take the worst parts of the 24/7 news cycle, distill it down to its highest proof, and light it on fire,” he said. “That’s Twitter.”