Cast your minds back to 2008. As well as the traditional settings of TV, radio and print, the race for the White House saw a new battleground: that of social media. The presidential campaign of Barack Obama used Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to good effect, alongside a massive online push for fundraising. Fifteen months on, Twitter is still being used, but this time as a tool for spreading the President’s message. But, post election, does it work?
The White House’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, is a voracious tweeter. With 33,000 followers (his deputy, Bill Burton, boasts 6,000) he uses those 140 characters for anything from the U.S.’s prowess in the Winter Olympics, announcing Obama’s first press conference, to posting links to articles that reflect government policy. But, given that someone like Ashton Kutcher can boast over four and a half million followers on his Twitter account–POTUS has, at the time of writing, 3,384,285 followers–just how useful can Twitter be to a government in power?
We all know that the birds do it (but let’s not forget about the bees and the educated fleas), and even the U.S. state departments have twitter feeds. Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the UN has got an account–although maybe her somewhat Lilliputian 1,496 followers can be put down to the fact that she’s only been tweeting since January. But maybe it’s more than that. Only last week the Environmental Protection Agency started tweeting, and Lisa P. Jackson has already got one call wrong: she thought Avatar would win Best Picture at last night’s Oscars. Oops.
I have a little theory about why social media works so well in an election campaign. It’s because it’s war, chaps. Every four years the country gets enthused about who’s going to be roller-skating down the corridors of power next (but let’s not forget the age-old adage of not voting governments in, but voting them out) and a clever campaign (Obama enlisted the services of Chris Hughes, who’d lent a hand to classmate Mark Zuckerberg when he was starting up Facebook) and red goes mano-a-mano with blue.
Once a new administration is in, however, the hubbub dies down–and the figures support that. People just want the powers that be to roll up their sleeves and get on with the job of improving people’s lives. If you think that just 60,000 people watched Obama speak on the subject of health care to Congress, with 20,000 of them staying behind to quiz officials about the speech, that’s not what I’d call interaction with the public on a grand scale. Director of New Media at the White House, Macon Phillips, claimed that it gave the administration “a taste of what questions the actual public had in raw form, rather than simply the questions cable news and Beltway pundits have.” Which begs the question: just how many non-journos and policy wonks were watching?