The McCain campaign had a notoriously poor online presence in 2008. The McCain Model T bounced and rattled across the Internet, while the Obama campaign zoomed past in one of the light cycles from Tron. Obama’s team aggressively harvested social media information, gathering it both online and in person, when young voters attended campaign rallies and rock concerts-which the cynical observer might note were virtually synonymous. Meanwhile, the McCain campaign offered a crude Web game called “Pork Busters!‚?Ě in which visitors basically played “Space Invaders,‚?Ě but shot at pink pigs instead of aliens.
There was, however, a very noticeable surge in online excitement when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin joined the McCain ticket, both officially and among the grassroots. Conservatives who might otherwise have been tepid about McCain took up digital swords and shields to battle an incredibly frantic and intense campaign to demonize Palin from the left. Palin went on to become a fixture of the conservative Internet, turning her Facebook page into a massive phenomenon.
Today, Palin’s online reach is the most expansive among all conservatives, and while there are encouraging signs the Republican Party has learned much from its stumbling online history, there is also notable room for improvement.
Social victory center
At the beginning of May, the Republican National Committee launched a powerful new Facebook application called the “Social Victory Center,‚?Ě which helps Republicans connect with each other. Perhaps more importantly, it automatically updates users’ Facebook pages when they read highlighted articles, or sign up for political events. The app also provides online coordination for phone bank activities, helping volunteers pitch in to contact independent voters in swing states. It is, by general acclamation, the most sophisticated political application ever deployed across a social media network.
Information gathered through the Victory Center can also be used to target political advertising and outreach efforts, which is very important-today’s web surfers don’t want to wade through piles of data to find the good stuff. They expect customized results, from online stores that remember their preferences, to movie and weather sites that know where they live.
The RNC backed up this software launch by deploying a squadron of social media directors to key states, in order to keep content in the Social Victory Center fresh and relevant. They didn’t just pour money into creating this application-they intend to use it effectively. Social media success requires the development of content, as well as capability.
RNC national press secretary Kirsten Kukowski told me that the Social Victory Center so far has performed beyond expectations. It was conceived as a “forward-thinking‚?Ě tool for the general election campaign, but “it really took off in Wisconsin,‚?Ě a reference to build-up to the June 5 recall elections for Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch. The Social Victory Center created what computer engineers would call a “peer-to-peer‚?Ě network, in which individuals created content from the ground up, and were able to coordinate outreach efforts to Wisconsin voters.
“It allowed grassroots people to log in and use their phones from home,‚?Ě Kukowski said, citing the phone bank feature of the Social Victory Center. Political analysts have come to recognize the importance of the “ground game‚?Ě for getting voters into booths with ballots in their hands.
The Republicans will also want to make the Social Victory Center the beginning of their online outreach effort in 2012, not its full extent. Full-spectrum Net savvy will be crucial during the campaign. As the Republican Party and Romney campaign build their online presence, they would do well to consider both the success enjoyed by the Obama campaign in 2008, and the differences between the Left and Right sides of cyberspace.
One of the big differences is the degree of organization enjoyed by the Left. An example can be found in the “flag-spamming‚?Ě technique liberals have been employing to erase targeted conservatives from the social media site Twitter. Before recent changes intended to prevent this technique from working, Tw
itter would automatically shut down accounts flagged as spam generators by a large number of users.
Liberals were able to organize thousands of false spam accusations with remarkable speed, often by doing nothing more than issuing a Twitter message targeting a particular conservative user. Followers would relay this message to each other, the “flag for spam‚?Ě button would be clicked a few thousand times, and the account under attack was blown away in a matter of hours.
Conservatives don’t do things like that, and many recoiled at the suggestion they should retaliate with flag-spamming attacks of their own.
Several House Republicans are particularly well noted for their adept use of social media, including Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Darrell Issa (Calif.), Paul Ryan (Wisc.), and Justin Amash (Mich.). They can be found everywhere from mainstay services like Facebook and Twitter, to the most cutting-edge new social media experiments. As chairmen of the House Oversight and Budget committees, respectively, Issa and Ryan use social media tools to disseminate committee reports, announce upcoming hearings, and spotlight interesting press coverage.
Others have found Facebook pages to be excellent tools for keeping in touch with constituents, with Rep. Allen West of Florida launching some legendary broadsides from his.
The Romney campaign has signaled a desire to work with the conservative blogosphere, going so far as to organize a large, informal outreach meeting in early May in Washington, D.C.
For better or worse, the Right has no single Web clearinghouse with an audience as large as Daily Kos or the Huffington Post on the Left. A large number of somewhat smaller sites have done a creditable job of building the conservative online presence.
What the unruly conservative blogging and social media scene brings to the 2012 election is a tremendous amount of viral power. Stories the mainstream press would prefer to ignore have been picked up and magnified by the conservative Internet, often generating enough heat to compel mainstream media coverage. Fox News, both online and on television, has a prominent role in this process.
From the wickedly funny trifle of “Obama eats dogs‚?Ě to the enormous Operation Fast and Furious scandal, which the mainstream press-aside from a few determined reporters-would rather not have covered at all, the online Right has decisively stripped the legacy media of its ability to decide a particular story is unworthy of coverage. That’s a huge change to the media landscape, and it’s something the Romney campaign would be wise to plug into, without making the mistake of trying to control it.
Viral power is very difficult to command. It loses its potency when the hand of a particular campaign apparatus is too strongly felt-something the formerly Net-wise Obama team has been learning, as its attempts to artificially create viral narratives around the President’s payroll tax cut, the Sandra Fluke controversy, and student loans were quickly subverted and rendered absurd.
But by carefully monitoring conservative blogs and social media, Republican candidates can uncover potent, resonant topics the New York and D.C. news establishments would assure them nobody in flyover country really wanted to talk about. “Silent majorities‚?Ě are kept silent by teaching the members to think of themselves as isolated eccentrics. The Internet has taken away the conceptual tools necessary to keep majorities silent. This will, hopefully, become as widely understood inside the Beltway over the next few months as it is known beyond it.