Twitter, Facebook: Hardly kingmakers

An app released by the Romney campaign earlier this year.
Whatever the final result of the presidential election, one thing is for sure: The role of social media in affecting the race has been both exaggerated and misunderstood.

Over the course of the last 18 months, we’ve had Facebook “townhalls,” Google “hangouts,” Twitter “chats,” YouTube “ask the candidate” pages, Reddit “ask me anything” sessions — and not one of them has had any impact on the election’s trajectory.
In addition, the campaigns set up their own outposts on all these platforms, along with new sites like Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Spotify. It’s all added up to fabulous free marketing for a bunch of Silicon Valley companies. But the value of these forays has been misreported by the political press, which has chased after each shiny new online bauble launched by the campaigns the way a puppy chases a new toy.
This is not to suggest that social media don’t matter to politics. According to an October 2012 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, six out of 10 American adults use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and two-thirds of those people — or roughly 39% of all adults — have used them to engage with politics.
Among people younger than 29, 64% say they have used social media to post their views about issues, link to political material, encourage others to take action, join a political group online, follow elected officials or promote political material posted by others.
There’s evidence that some of this activity could well have boosted turnout by a point or two on Tuesday. In 2010, Facebook posted a single “I Voted” button for its users to click on Election Day, and about 340,000 additional people came out to vote as a result of seeing their friends sharing the fact that they were voting, too.
Social pressure has always shaped real-world behavior, and it should come as no surprise that we can affect one another’s activities through our online social networks.
This year, the Obama and Romney campaigns embarked on more extensive efforts to get people to vote by lighting up their online networks. On Facebook, for example, the Obama campaign sent numerous notifications to the 1 million people who had downloaded its “Obama 2012” app, asking them to nudge friends living in swing states.
The Romney campaign did something similar with its “Commit to Mitt” app, which had only about 30,000 users. Facebook itself included an “I’m a Voter” button on many of its users’ pages Tuesday.
These efforts may have boosted turnout slightly — but it will be a while before we know for sure.
But compared with 2008, when voter-generated content altered the campaign’s course, social media didn’t shift the national dialogue in 2012 as much as mirror it.
This cycle, YouTube reported that by September, there had been more than 2 billion views of videos mentioning Obama or any of the Republican presidential hopefuls, but only 5% of those views were for official videos made by their campaigns.
In such a large ocean of online content, nothing, whether it was made by the campaigns or by grassroots activists, made much of a ripple.
If social media were influential in any new way in 2012, it wasn’t because ordinary people used these platforms to force the candidates to listen, but rather because the campaigns data-mined social media usage to better “microtarget” messages at ordinary people.
Internet users often forget that if they’re not paying for services like Facebook, it’s because they’re actually the product being sold to advertisers.
This story has been hidden from public view, because the campaigns didn’t want to tip off their opponents to what they were doing, the political press barely even knew to look for it and many online outlets themselves are doing the same thing.
Welcome to the brave new world of data-driven politics — it may well make us all pine for the days of 30-second TV ads, when at least we knew that someone was trying to sell us something.



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