In this April 20, 2011, file photo, President Obama, accompanied by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaks during a town hall meeting to discuss reducing the national debt at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.
Between tweeting pictures of empty chairs and getting the scoop on White House alcohol a la Reddit, social media is proving to be an important part of the 2012 presidential campaign season. Yet, this surplus of communication may leave some wondering whether or not technology will actually help Gen Y — or the presidential candidates themselves — make their voices heard.
Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Reddit are transforming outreach on a national level. Although this is not the first election cycle to take advantage of these platforms, Scott Silverman, associate director for Student Affairs for University Honors at the University of California – Riverside, explained that its use has been growing.
“The social media strategists have now been using social media for years — it has been around for years — so they have a better knowledge of what will get responses,” he said.
Garrett Jacobs, who heads the College Republicans at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, said that the kind of social media being used is also different this election. Whereas Twitter didn’t exist in 2004, and was used very sparingly in 2008, it is now “nearly equivalent” to Facebook.
“People get information from articles their friends post [on Facebook],” Jacobs said. They need to get excited to vote and “seeing information on social media will affect how informed or excited they are about a certain candidate.”
Penn College Republicans president Laura Brown said she agrees.
“Many RNC videos have been shared on my wall and re-tweeted to my Twitter feed,” she said. “This will continue throughout the DNC.”
YouTube fueled Logan Depover’s interest in Ron Paul. Depover, who discovered Paul through videos of 2008 election speeches, volunteered with Youth for Ron Paul at his school and still donates money to Paul through money bombs.
“I think the Ron Paul movement wouldn’t be possible without Facebook, Twitter and YouTube,” said Depover, a political science and anthropology major at the University of Iowa.
“I also believe that social media is allowing people to receive information about the candidates and politics more directly and in an unfiltered way, whereas in the past, information about such things has had to come through the mainstream media first,” he wrote in an email.
But Silverman, who is also one of the UCR’s experts on social media, said he thinks people need to be careful about using social media as a main news source.
“Some factual things might get lost” since the person online may not have all the information or have a bias, he said.
“Friends sharing articles is important for our generation, but students who care about the future of America will be doing their own personal research on each of the candidates with their social media outlets as a starting point,” said Brown.
Penn Democrats president and University of Pennsylvania student Andrew Brown agrees.
“The use of social media and technological tools allows Obama to use youth enthusiasm to make up for a fundraising gap,” he said.
As of July, Romney’s campaign raised $106 million in funds. This is $35 million more than what the Obama camp had at its disposal.
“Campaigns will effectively harness this enthusiasm and turn it into votes this fall,” he said.
A Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism August study showed that the Obama campaign has used social media four times as much, and on twice as many platforms, as the Romney campaign. The Obama campaign is also generating more responses.
“Obama was very successful at mobilizing the youth vote through social media,” said Brown. She added that Republicans took note of this and are following suit.
Silverman said he thinks the candidates could do even more to boost themselves on social media. He points out that memes are being underutilized and that both camps should aim to sound more authentic — for instance, use more jargon and some sarcasm — in their posts and tweets.
Even humor, he added, could help sway the vote.
“What if the White House was on Foursquare and Obama was the mayor? That would be funny and might get more votes,” he said.
However, Jacobs, Depover and Brown all said they doubt that opinions voiced on social media platforms will have an impact on legislation. There’s “more of a communications than policy difference,” said Jacobs. “It will affect how politicians frame their issues.”
Social media seems to prove this point. Neither campaign, according to the Pew study, has taken advantage of this new wave of communication — the candidates rarely comment on, reply to or retweet anything from citizens. Obama’s AMA on Reddit, in which he answered questions posed by the site’s users, is one notable exception.
“Obama recognized that people were sick of war and Guantanamo Bay,” Depover said. “He made promises, but he didn’t really act.”
Silverman, however, said policy transparency online will eventually be in the cards. Politicians could use social media to poll public’s opinions on certain issues. And constituents’ online responses to new legislation could help these politicians explain their stances and votes more fully, so people have fewer questions left unanswered.
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