Many of history’s greatest world leaders have engaged the public through their savvy use of emerging technology. Roosevelt was known for enlightening the public of the need for the revolutionary New Deal reforms through regular radio speeches and fireside chats.
Similarly, JFK transformed the use of television for the 1960 presidential race. Here we see a particularly memorable TV campaign:
With the presidential address now also moving onto a livestream, it is a matter of when, and not if, online technologies will replace traditional mediums as a means of distributing important political information. The Obama administration has notably made online video its default method for the weekly national address.
Campaigning on Social media
The growth of social media has already become an essential vote-gathering tactic. This infographic demonstrates that Twitter remarkably doubled its following of 100 million users in 2010 to 200 million in 2012 (while also having 87% brand awareness at the time).
And many of these users are looking to social media for their news. From a 1995 non-factor, one in two Americans now see the internet as their major source of campaign news. With 72% of internet users using social networking sites in 2013, clearly there are a lot of votes to be won.
Can Twitter decide elections?
This varies by country but the 2012 US Presidential election demonstrates a growing importance of social media technologies. The U.S. places conflated importance on Twitter campaigning relative to Australia simply because their election campaigns take significantly more time and spend significantly more money, while a non-compulsory system also incentivizes the use of engaging technologies to encourage voter turnout.
But in the social media age, where Twitter and Facebook are exponentially growing in users, the U.S. may forecast the future of Australian elections. Indeed, Kevin Rudd’s campaign team included Tom McMahon, Joon Kim and Matthew McGregor, who all worked on Barack Obama’s 2012 social media-heavy election push. Despite his loss, Rudd’s social media presence may have influenced Labor saving 25 seats after his reinstatement as leader.
Obama has revolutionised campaigning. He started the social media network my.BarackObama.com. as a means of engaging the public and is now the 4th most followed person on Twitter, with 38,999,917 followers.
His social media dominance helped the President’s campaign in a number of ways:
Fundraising– The Democratic party made donations online and via email easily accessible for regular people. 80% of the $639 million dollars Obama raised came from donations that were $20 or less, increasing a sense of individual agency amongst supporters.
Engagement– 66% of social media users actively engage in political activism online, reinforcing campaign messages. In the 2012 election, 30% of online users were urged to vote via social media by social media connections, 20% actively encouraged others and 22% posted their decision when they voted.
Reach– Through his support on social networks, Obama essentially made his pitch to more people than Romney. Obama supporters who signed up for an e-mail alert about the vice presidential choice, or opted in on Facebook or MyBarackObama could subsequently be mass e-mailed. And a networked Obama White House could easily canvass voter attitudes.
Alternatively, Mitt Romney loss highlighted the negative effects of social media. Jaunique Sealey, an expert in social media marketing, has emphasised,
“If there are things that don’t go well – including the sound bite culture that we kind of have in the news world right now, that also gets spread relatively quickly through social media. It can go viral – both via Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately, the thing that spreads quickest is the negative.”
Romney has become the poster child for this networked soundbite culture, most notably the memes spread following his ‘binders full of women’ statement regarding his party’s lack of gender diversity.
More seriously, the spread of the 47% video on social media magnified this mistake and severely damaged the Romney campaign:
Questions of quality
So while there are clearly many votes on Twitter, another question we should consider is: should there be votes on Twitter?
As a medium, does Twitter encourage positive political discourse? And does Twitter uplift or diminish participatory democracy in nations such as Australia and the U.S?
The emphasis on social media only serves to deepen the personality politics that have plagued modern campaign coverage. Romney’s ‘binders full of women’ gaffe, while hilarious, was definitely blown out of proportion relative to policy discussion. What might have come to light if not for this sound bite obsession would have been the more substantive fact that Romney’s claim (that he had actively sought out women’s groups to address the gender income gap) was in fact a fabricated version of events, as unveiled by the Boston Phoenix. The Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, has consciously steered away from Twitter because of “a move in political reporting from substance to trivia.”
While scandals and personality smearing can be covered in 140 characters, in-depth analysis is a bit harder to squeeze in. The unmoderated medium of Twitter does not cater for serious policy debate, demonstrated during the 2011 Australian election campaign, which featured a ‘twitter debate’ between Premier Kristina Keneally and opposition leader Barry O’Farrell. The debate quickly became inundated with jokes and scorn, while 140 character answers were generally insufficient.
Many politicians have emphasised social media’s two way connection, with the ALP’s Ed Husic emphasising, “people can get an insight into who I am, but also from the people I follow and the feedback I get, I can use that in a way that informs the way I work.” While this sentiment might help win votes, author Greg Jericho sees that politicians instead value the information sharing of social networks as an effective means of canvassing supporters, useful in targeting campaign messages. Politicians are more likely to use Twitter to broadcast their agenda rather than to engage with the public.
There may be a time in the near future when Twitter develops as a technology suitable for enhancing our participatory democracy but it appears that current social media manifestations can merely act as a shallow campaign tool.