The 2012 campaign is really the second presidential contest to occur within the modern concept of social media. The online battleground featured much the same terrain as 2008, which in turn represented the culmination of trends running from 2000 through 2004. The 2004 contest was the deafening birthing cry of the blogger generation, as a major old-media story???Dan Rather???s fake National Guard memos???was torn to shreds by new media.
By 2008, most of the features of our current social media environment were in place, but everything is much bigger this time around. Facebook is 10 times larger than it was in 2008. Twitter has grown by about 30 percent per year. YouTube is burning three billion hours of video per month into the retinas of users, with clips embedded upon countless web pages. Mobile Internet access is also more widespread, with the smartphone user base exploding by over 400 percent.
One big difference was a greater sense of parity in the online efforts between the two campaigns. Barack Obama???s 2008 operation was far more adept at using the Internet than John McCain???s, although vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin would go on to become a strong presence on Facebook. In 2012, Mitt Romney???s team put up a much better online fight. For example, both campaigns had online teams pumping out Twitter messages during the debates, with Obama???s team issuing a considerably higher volume of messages.
Another new twist is the increasing media focus upon social media activity as a measure of campaign success. The size of followings on Twitter and Facebook were compared. Obama has far more Twitter followers; Romney picked up almost three times as many Facebook ???Likes??? during the debates. Of course, no one knows what any of this really means. Clicking ???Like??? on Facebook is a far different proposition than casting a vote; following someone on Twitter doesn???t necessary indicate approval; a high degree of online ???buzz??? about a candidate doesn???t necessarily mean he???s being discussed in a good way.
One of the most elusive concepts analysts of new media have struggled to grasp is that interest doesn???t automatically indicate approval and it doesn???t even necessarily indicate genuine, abiding interest. The online generation is accustomed to grazing casually at an all-night buffet of information, and it loves sarcastic humor at the expense of the more exotic dishes.
Both the Romney and Obama campaigns invested effort in launching Twitter ???hashtags,??? which link related messages into long conversation threads, in an effort to stimulate discussion of important topics and campaign slogans. Both saw their hashtags ???hijacked??? by sarcastic supporters of the other candidate, who twisted the slogans into ironic jokes???a more entertaining pastime than writing sincere contributions into the conversation threads sponsored by the candidate you really support.
It???s also become increasingly apparent that online metrics are easily gamed. It has been alleged that both Romney and Obama have a large number of fake Twitter followers???empty accounts that generate little of the activity associated with real users, created for the sole purpose of pumping up follower totals. Automated programs can allow a single dedicated user???either working freelance, or for a campaign???to generate a high volume of false electronic ???approval.???
Besides the general question of whether online interest will translate into votes, there???s the question of how extensively social media has displaced old-fashioned ???water cooler??? conversation. Prior to the Internet, much political information was related informally, and not always accurately???people would reference or paraphrase noteworthy statements and policy positions. But now it???s easy to send links to video clips and press releases. Campaign managers hope this will help them organize more support for their candidates, by exposing more undecided voters to professionally produced appeals.
It???s also important to remember that the Internet is about observation, as much as communication. It???s not just the biggest soapbox ever constructed; it???s also the most powerful telescope, giving political campaigns the ability to harvest information about supporters for targeted messaging and fundraising. Google search data and YouTube views provide important tools for measuring public interest.
The general consensus of analysts is that the Obama campaign remains much better at this type of data mining, aggressively using its official campaign Facebook app to harvest data about users and their friends.
We???re not far from learning whether these social media tools have revolutionized campaigning or given analysts a lot of false data that didn???t really mean anything, when the time came for voters to march to the polls. As with everything else touched by the Internet, political campaigns have clearly become bigger, faster, and more flexible, but it remains to be seen how much better that makes them.