Social Media in Politics

In 2008, there were only 100 million people on Facebook.  Twitter had only 8 employees.  There were only 13 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube per minute.

This year, the first presidential debate, live on YouTube, had about 45,000 viewers.  There were 10.3 million tweets on the subject, making it the most tweeted about event in U.S political history.

During this election season, both campaigns use social media as a way to spread information and keep politics immediate and visceral.  According to a survey conducted by Pew, 36 percent of people say websites are very or somewhat important in keeping up with politics, 26 percent of people say sites are very or somewhat important in recruiting people to get involved and 25 percent of people say sites are very or somewhat important in having discussion and finding people with similar views.

On all counts, liberals were more likely to say social media was important than conservatives.  Liberals are also more likely to use social media than conservatives. In general, liberals seem to be more savvy in social media, as seen with Obama’s campaign in 2008 compared to John McCain’s.

In 2008, the idea of using social media in politics to get voters to donate and register was considered novel, but Obama showed that it could work by raising half a billion dollars online.  (John McCain did very little in social media.  Obama had nearly three times as many followers and views on every social media outlet.)  There are 252 US congressional members who use Twitter, and the GOP has been trying to catch up.  However, Obama is still thought to be more adept at social media (64 percent of 2,500 people polled by Google said Obama was better at social media, while 38.5 percent voted for Romney), and has five times as many tweets and 18 million more followers.  (But then again, he is the president.)

Social media can help politicians look less distant and more human.  Direct interaction and communication makes people think of politicians as people.  The Internet is a place where everyone has an equal voice – maybe one more or less listened to than others, but you can use the same platforms and you can’t necessarily see race or gender or age.

Groups of people who are underrepresented in positions of power are well-represented on the Internet.  69 percent of women use social media, compared to 60 percent of men, and over half of those women use it every day.  80 percent of teenagers use social media, and out of 3000 young people ages 15-25 interviewed, half use social media daily.

A Georgetown University study found that Hispanic and African-Americans are more likely to use social media to learn about and become involved in social issues.  About 33 percent of African-Americans and 39 percent of Hispanics responded that they were “more likely” to support a social issue or cause online, compared to 25 percent of white respondents.

People live tweet or liveblog as events happen.  You don’t have to be a pro anymore to share your opinion.  There’s a lot of information and news that gets passed on nearly instantaneously with added commentary, memes and viral videos.  In the case of the presidential debate, when moderator Jim Lehrer interrupted Mitt Romney telling him, “Let’s not,” twitter exploded at 158,690 tweets per minute.

(It is worth noting, however, that while mainstream media and news outlets have mostly positive coverage and conversation, that discussions on social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and Reddit) are quite often negative.)

Even with all this personal input and sharing of opinions, though, social media has the word social in it for a reason.  Its purpose is to connect people in having meaningful moments and discussion.  The presidential candidates rarely reply to tweets or join in discussions, choosing instead to use social media as more of an impersonal soapbox.

Still, it’s been four years and much has changed for the better.  Both parties have accepted and embraced the fact that social media will play a role in politics, and they can only get better with time.  Liberals may be more social-media savvy now, but who knows what could happen by the time of the next election.