Just as social media heavily impacted this year’s London Summer Olympics, it’s also playing a very prominent part in this year’s U.S. presidential election. In 2008, President Obama showed everyone just how powerful social media could be. Now, both sides are proving just how essential leveraging Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms are to a successful run at the White House.
As Michael Slably, an Obama campaign officer, put it, "There was a lot of talk post-'08 about it being the social media election. But the reality is, Twitter launched during the last campaign, and Facebook had less than 100 million users. We were at the very beginning of what it meant to be social."
There’s no question that social media has now come of age—and that the online stakes are incredibly high for both Romney and Obama. Of voting-age social-media users, 94% are getting most of their political messaging from the Internet, according to a 2011 study. Those same users are more influenced by their Facebook friends than the evening news. In other words, if you’re not winning over Facebook fans, you may not win your contest on Election Day.
The constant social media spotlight has meant several significant "campaign stops" for both candidates as unexpected Internet blowbacks forced them to pause and take stock of how the ongoing onslaught of online scrutiny has suddenly turned conventional politics upside down.
Here are three of the most significant ones:
Campaign Stop #1: Fact-Checking Is Now an Amateur Sport
In the past, a candidate’s minor "exaggeration" might have slipped by relatively unnoticed. Now, when Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan mentioned in a radio interview that he once ran a marathon in under three hours, the Internet exploded with rebuttals from a runners’ website named LetsRun.com, whose users hate people who cheat on their times and do everything in their power to bust them. The site’s forum discussion on the topic finally grew to 32 pages and over 600 posts and spurred Runner’s World to track down the marathon Ryan ran in and nail down his real time (about an hour longer). This kind of online diligence has caused veteran reporters to increasingly confront candidates on their, as Stephen Colbert puts it, "truthiness" much more than in previous campaign years.
Campaign Stop #2: The Speed of Social Media Is a Double-Edged Sword
When a preview of an amateurish anti-Islam movie was released on YouTube, it went viral around the globe, including Arab countries. It was condemned by Egypt’s Grand Mufti in September 9th and at noon local time, aware of the rising tensions, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted, "Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy," and a few minutes later, "US Embassy condemns religious incitement." The attack that resulted in the deaths of several American Embassy officers came after these tweets.
The Romney campaign, thinking the tweets were a reaction to the attacks, quickly issued a statement condemning the Obama Administration for sympathizing with the attackers. Once the media caught on that the tweets came before the attack—and that the Obama administration had not authorized the tweets from the Embassy—Democrats and Republicans were condemning Mitt Romney for acting too fast without the facts in hand. Romney had to learn a hard lesson that the instant power of social media is as much a danger as it is an opportunity.
Campaign Stop #3: Social Media Knows Where You’re Hiding
President Obama recently took to the popular social website Reddit to take part in one of its popular "Ask Me Anything" sessions, in which Reddit users can literally ask the participant any question they want. In this case, the most frequently asked question of Obama was what his position was on the legalization of marijuana and the drug war in general. Obama had the time to reveal his favorite NBA team (The Bulls, of course), but he continually ducked the drug question and took a lot of heat for it. Since many in his base are for looser drug restrictions, he disappointed a lot of potential voters.
Social media has changed the election game forever by shining a continual light, from every possible direction, on every move a high-profile candidate makes. That’s never truer than in a Presidential election—and 2012 will undoubtedly change many a campaign game plan for years to come.
[Image: Flickr user Gioconda Beekman]