Politics and Social Media

Coming off an intense gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts, social media played a key role in helping disseminate our message, rally supporters and show a contrast with the opponent. When it comes to political use, social media should not be used impulsively – rather, quite the opposite. Political messaging should be carefully crafted and packaged to draw the attention of followers. Results are tangible, and it’s clear your message is successful once it’s been favorited, retweeted or a link you shared is clicked on by someone else.

One important component to keep in mind is the fact that once a social media post becomes live, you can’t take it back. While a tweet, Facebook post or link can be deleted, someone can always screenshot what you’ve said. Most people use social media to share articles, pictures or innocuous, funny thoughts, but when it comes to hyper-charged issues like politics, emotions can take over. I’ve always operated under the belief to never post something I’d be unhappy to see in the press. Frankly, I hope many of the tweets I author  end up in a story, because that means I’ve done my job. However, because social media is instantaneous, at the tips of your fingers and speaking in 160 characters or less lends itself to the lowest common denominator, social media can get you in trouble.

When you speak to someone, especially on a sensitive issue, you usually find yourself choosing your words judiciously. Conversely, when you’re behind a computer or on your smartphone, it’s easy to forget that social media is an on-the-record conversation. I’ve worked with people in politics who forgot this simple principle and as a result of errant, offensive posts were demoted, forced to stop using social media or even fired. Conventional media – written, TV and radio – perpetuates this system. The reason why people I know got in trouble with of social media is because what they wrote was reported in the paper.

Similarly, social media now influences mainstream media. In June, Massachusetts’s largest newspaper, the Boston Globe, debuted “Capital,” a political section that runs on Fridays. Part of Capital is a Twitter influencer’s chart, which determines the top 500 most influential people who tweet about Massachusetts and national politics and policy. Seemingly each week, political reporters and political staffers become embroiled in a debate about the authenticity of the rankings and some openly campaigned for their desire to be ranked higher. Over the past few years, reporters have become accustomed to writing stories specifically about what candidates, staff and elected officials post on social media. During this past year’s election, on a number of occasions a print reporter called and asked me to expand on something I tweeted, especially if it was retweeted or favorited by others.

Further evidence on how social media is used to disseminate a controlled message is the fact that on December 16th, Jeb Bush used Facebook and Twitter to announce his presidential exploratory committee. No longer do candidates and elected officials risk the chance of having their message co-opted by questions during a press conference. By releasing an announcement on Facebook or Twitter, like Bush did, the media is forced to report based only on what the candidate said in a pre-recorded video or statement. In turn, this enables followers or friends to share exactly what the candidate wants people to see.

While reaching targeted audiences through social media continues to evolve, it’s important to look at how social media was used during the 2012 presidential campaign according to a data analytics platform, xPatterns. As you can see in the pie charts below, President Obama and the DNC and Mitt Romney and RNC had roughly the same saturation on Facebook (with Romney and the RNC having a slight advantage, 51-48). This means both campaigns and national parties took advantage of the same tools offered by Facebook, especially in terms of having friends share messages and videos – it seemed like every time you logged on Facebook during the election cycle you were inundated with campaign information. However, when it came to Twitter and RSS Feeds, Obama and the DNC dwarfed Romney and the RNC. A whopping 66% of analyzed tweets and RSS Feeds came from the Obama and Democratic side, compared to a paltry 34% from Romney and the Republican side. While the Republicans actually had an RSS blackout in July, the Democrats used social media as a strategic tool to bring the message directly to a targeted audience – young people. It’s no secret Obama was overwhelmingly successful with the youth vote (18-34), and social media was a key factor in his campaign’s ability to reach this demographic. Both Republicans and Democrats succeeded in generating content for social media, but Democrats took it a step further and turned the content into deliverable action items.

A microcosm of this overall theme is represented by a social media analysis Pew Research conducted from June 4-17, 2012 (see bar graphs below). Over this three-week period, the Obama campaign posted 614 unique messages on social media, compared to 168 for the Romney campaign. The disparity was largest on Twitter, where the Obama campaign averaged 29 tweets per day, compared to just one for the Romney campaign. This led to  150,000 retweets of Obama messages and 8600 for Romney. As previously noted, Romney and Obama were equivalent in Facebook use, but Obama was more successful in having followers share messaging. According to Pew’s analysis, there were over 1.1 million “likes” for the Obama campaign and 633,00 for the Romney campaign. Similarly, there was double the amount of YouTube comments (840,000 vs. 400,000) for the Obama campaign.

While Democrats were victorious in the social media battle in 2012, you can be assured that Republicans are working to close the gap and Democrats are fighting to stay one step ahead. From the 2008 Presidential campaign to 2012, political social media use evolved as the platforms improved and we can expect similar growth headed to 2016.

social media 1 [1]                 social media 3   [2]               social media 2   [3]            social media 4    [4]        social media 5[5]




[1]Obama Smoked Romney in Social Media,” Huffington Post, Christopher Burgess (11/8/2012)

[2]Obama Smoked Romney in Social Media,” Huffington Post, Christopher Burgess (11/8/2012)

[3]Obama Smoked Romney in Social Media,” Huffington Post, Christopher Burgess (11/8/2012)

[4]How the Presidential Candidates Use Web and Social Media,” Pew Research Center (8/12/2012)

[5]How the Presidential Candidates Use Web and Social Media,” Pew Research Center (8/12/2012)

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