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Saturday, Jul 07 2012 10:02 PM

Social networking begets social politicking

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    Brandon Waite

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By BRANDON WAITE

Savvy politicians and their advisers are often the first to take advantage of new technologies to convert followers into voters. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was radio. In the 1950s and 1960s, television took over. Now in 2012, we have social media, smartphones and tablets.

President Obama used social media in 2008 as a key method to develop a grass-roots effort to attract young voters. Through Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, the Democratic Party candidate was able to bring his message to millions of young people who are the first to embrace new technologies. Earlier this year, a study undertaken by researchers at Indiana's Ball State University found that smartphone ownership by college students has increased to 69 percent, up from 27 percent in 2009.

But young people aren't the only ones that politicians are focusing on for their new media efforts. The number of people using social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, has nearly doubled since 2008. Likewise, the population of social network users has gotten older, with more than half of them above the age of 35. And Americans are accessing these sites not only with smartphones but also with new tablets -- including Apple's iPad -- that have been best-sellers for the last year.

As these changes have occurred, the lead that Democrats once held in cyberspace has quickly diminished as research has found. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that in the midterm elections of 2010, political social media users skewed Republican (40 percent to 38 percent) and voted for Republican congressional candidates over Democratic candidates (45 percent to 41 percent).

Candidates and interest groups on both sides of the partisan divide now spend a significant amount of time and money on integrating social media into their campaigns. To do so effectively, campaign managers will have to consider the unique characteristics of the each medium (television, radio, social media), the location and social setting of the user (at home, in the office, at a party), and the activity in which the user is engaged (gaming, shopping, searching for information)

Indeed, social media's business model rests on the collection and exchange of large amounts of users' personal data that report these characteristics in real time. Despite public outcry regarding privacy concerns, marketers (both political and corporate) know more about consumers than ever before. It is going to be fascinating to watch the ways in which candidates, as well as outside groups, use this information to communicate with voters, mobilize volunteers and raise money.

However, the implementation of this new technological wave will not remove political campaigns' connection to familiar analog characteristics -- the annual invasion of yard signs, public speaking opportunities and spirited debates.

Even while communication technologies allow politicians to reach millions of potential voters with a simple tweet or Facebook post, don't expect the demise any time soon of the act of kissing a baby or shaking hands with faithful party followers at local restaurants. There are some things that smartphones, tablets and the Internet can't replace.

Brandon Waite is an assistant professor of political science and an emerging media fellow at Ball State University in Indiana. He recently completed a chapter for inclusion in the new volume "Communicator-in-Chief: A Look at How Barack Obama Used New Media Technology to Win the White House" (Lexington Books).

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