Politics In The Social Media Age: How Tweet It Is

This might be the last election cycle in which we write about how the phenomenon of social media — interactive, friend-driven websites such as Facebook and Twitter — is affecting national politics, because next time around, the practice of social media may be such an integral part of the process we won't even notice it.

But for the moment, it's still a little jarring to click on the Facebook page for Republican straight arrow Thaddeus McCotter from Michigan's 11th District and see a profile photo of the congressman in white dress shirt and red tie rocking out on a guitar. On his page you can find a link to a video of the congressman in jeans and T-shirt playing "Gloria" with a boomer band.

Republican congressional candidate Ilario Pantano of North Carolina's Twitter page. i i

Republican congressional candidate Ilario Pantano of North Carolina has accumulated more than 7,400 Twitter "followers." twitter.com/ilario_pantano hide caption

itoggle caption twitter.com/ilario_pantano
Republican congressional candidate Ilario Pantano of North Carolina's Twitter page.

Republican congressional candidate Ilario Pantano of North Carolina has accumulated more than 7,400 Twitter "followers."

twitter.com/ilario_pantano

Or to peruse the personal Facebook page of John Heckenlively, Democratic candidate in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District. On his Facebook wall, he mixes the public Heck (his nickname) with the private Heck, as he links to a Huffington Post story about the coming elections, "likes" fellow Wisconsin Democrat Cory Mason, and asks for your support — in his quest to amass a fortune in the silly online game Millionaire City.

Or to click on the Facebook page of Ilario Pantano, a Republican vying for North Carolina's 7th District. More than 4,000 users "like" Pantano for Congress. And he has taken to social media like a songbird to suet, posting a frenzy of Facebook messages — 64 in one recent week. More than 7,000 Twitter users follow Pantano, and he has emitted more than 4,000 tweets during his campaign.

Then there is Mike Shoen, the Libertarian candidate in Arizona's 3rd Congressional District, who boasts in a YouTube video ad that his website is five times better than both of his opponents' websites — combined. With digital bravado — and a misplaced apostrophe — he crows, "My opponent's websites are fluff."

Fluffy websites, amateurish videos, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts — digital politics in 2010 is, IMHO, a trend in transition.

Virtual Authenticity

Facebook is an excellent way for a candidate or campaign to keep everyone — constituents and the media, in particular — up to date on goings-on, says Adam Conner, who works for Facebook in Washington.

From the Facebook page of Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich. i i

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., rocks out on Facebook. facebook.com/thaddeusmccotter hide caption

itoggle caption facebook.com/thaddeusmccotter
From the Facebook page of Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., rocks out on Facebook.

facebook.com/thaddeusmccotter

Conner is speaking on a recent Monday evening at George Washington University. He is a participant in a panel discussion titled: "Going Viral: How Campaigns Are Using Social Media."

Moderated by Ben Smith of Politico, the panel of political digerati also includes Mindy Finn, a partner in EngageDC and the director of "e-Strategy" for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign; and Matthew Hindman, an assistant professor in the university's School of Media and Public Affairs. Watching the discussion on C-SPAN, one is struck by how fast the digital politics landscape is shifting.

With 500 million users, Conner says, Facebook is a free, direct route between candidates and voters. It is a novel way for politicians to be, or at least appear to be, transparent. And he foresees a day when elected officials use Facebook and other social media "on a personal level" to affect how they legislate and how they govern.

"Authenticity is really what is helping to carry the day," Conner says.

There is much talk among the panelists of "authenticity" — the notion that a candidate who sends out her own online messages and interacts with voters electronically is perceived as more real than a candidate who doesn't, or who leaves the tasks up to staff members.

One of the ironies of contemporary politics is that the more comfortable a candidate is with being virtual, the more real she seems to be.

"Very few congressional candidates are doing a good job using these tools" says Hindman, author of The Myth of Digital Democracy and, as described by moderator Smith, a "technoscold."

Hindman says he did a quick social media study of the dozen closest races and discovered that the median candidate has about 200 followers on Twitter and about 1,500 Facebook friends. The numbers did not impress him.

Some candidates are social media aficionados, he says. He calls Pantano "a Twitter machine." And 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is roundly acknowledged among the panelists as a whirling digital dervish who knows how to connect directly to voters with folksy observations on multiple platforms.

Three Examples Of Well-Wired Politicians

Name/Party: Sean Duffy/Republican.

About: Former cast member of MTV's The Real World and district attorney; competitive lumberjack.

Race: Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District.

Website: www.duffyforcongress.com

Facebook: More than 7,000 People "like" him.

Twitter: More than 11,000 Followers.

YouTube video you should see: Get America Rolling.

Name/Party: Christine O’Donnell/Republican.

About: Former president of the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth, a nonprofit that promoted chastity among young people.

Race: U.S. Senate in Delaware.

Website: www.christine2010.com

Facebook:  More than 27,000 people "like" her.

Twitter: More than 10,000 followers.

YouTube video you should see: Chris Coons is … Rubber Stamp Man. (Coons is her opponent; O'Donnell's ads have not always done well in PolitiFact's truth-squadding.)

Name/Party: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand/Democrat.

About: Incumbent senator, filling the seat of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Race: U.S. Senate in New York.

Website: www.kirstengillibrand.com

Facebook: More than 22,000 people "like" her.

Twitter: More than 6,000 followers.

YouTube video you should see: Kirsten Gillibrand: Made in America.

But the group also points out that many politicians find the communication method cumbersome. Social media sites must be updated constantly. "So many candidates," Hindman says, "just use them as window dressing."

He adds: "I have yet to see any evidence that social media is going to persuade truly persuadable voters."

Mindy Finn is more positive about the power of social media. She says that campaigns have used it successfully to train volunteers and to rally troops.

Several of the panelists say that the cumulative effect of seeing public affirmation of who your friends support — plastered all over walls, blogs, tweets, message boards, e-mails and other digital public spaces — is extremely and unquantifiably powerful.

No one points out that just a generation ago, many Americans did not talk about who they voted for. At all. It was considered a secret and private matter.

Double-Edged Swords

The increase in social media has had escalating influence on political campaigns.

Shrewd politicians and strategists have used the Internet to instruct supporters to take specific actions, such as donating money and recruiting new converts. Using shorter message blasts, they have lured people to websites for major announcements. They have highlighted videos that humiliate their opponents.

In 2006, a YouTube video made by an aide from his Democratic opponent's campaign captured Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia on the campaign trail referring to that young Indian-American man as "macaca." The incident became an embarrassment for Allen and helped cost him re-election.

In the 2008 presidential election, "meetups" organized online by Barack Obama supporters raised huge amounts of cash. Mass e-mails mobilized Obama's volunteers.

"The interesting thing in 2010 has been that social media tools and techniques have really taken off up and down the electoral scale, from state-wide campaigns down to local races," says Colin Delany, founder of Epolitics.com, a site that explores online politics. "In particular, we've seen a real explosion of Facebook advertising, because it's typically relatively cheap and it's very easy to target at residents in a particular district, meaning that you don't waste ads and money."

The ads are not always targeted well, however. Hang out on Facebook and you're likely to see an ad along the right rail for some politician you've never heard of. You can't vote for her. But if she appeals to your political leanings, you can send her money. Instantly.

It's a toss-up as to whether Facebook political ads really make a difference when voters enter the booths. "We do not have publicly available statistics on political advertising on Facebook during this election cycle or in 2008," says Facebook spokesperson Andrew Noyes, "but in both cycles, campaigns certainly embraced Facebook."

Noyes points out that the social networking website keeps up-to-date stats on politicians' fan pages. A recent check of the Facebook Ratings, on the blog AllFacebook.com, shows that Republican congressional candidates have more "fans" than Democratic candidates.

The folks at Facebook maintain that a candidate's following can translate into success at the polls. They look to history for validation. The primaries of 2010 "once again demonstrated Facebook's role as a critical tool for political campaigns," the company says in a statement. "Many candidates who won their primary races have more Facebook fans than their opponents and actively posted campaign updates on their Facebook Pages."

Facebook points to the Delaware Republican Senate primary race as a good example. When voting day came, Christine O'Donnell had four times the number of fans as Rep. Mike Castle and O'Donnell won. Facebook also alludes to the Washington D.C. mayoral primary contest. On primary election day, challenger Vince Gray had twice as many fans on his page as incumbent Adrian Fenty. And Gray won.

Key Moments In Digital Politics

July 2003:

The Washington Post reports that former Vermont governor Howard Dean has harnessed the "power of the Internet" — raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and signing up 45,000 supporters nationwide — to go from dark-horse Democratic presidential candidate to serious contender. One political strategist observes: "Ever since 1996, people have been talking about the potential of the Internet to organize and raise money, but no one figured out how to do it. Not even Al Gore. The thing about Dean is, not only is he using it, he is building an organization through it and he is raising money through that organization."

July 2004:

For the first time, web loggers — known as bloggers — are issued official credentials to the Democratic and Republican national conventions. ''Whomever they decide to let through the gate is now the press,'' Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, and a blogger, tells The New York Times. ''What the credential means to me is that someone just expanded the idea of the press a little bit.”

August, 2006:

In a piece titled "The Revolution Will BeYouTubed," The Hotline political report leads readers to a Slate story that credits creative and crushing YouTube clips in the Connecticut Senate primary defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman by Democrat Ned Lamont. The same Hotline note reports on the "damning" YouTube clip of Sen. George Allen, R-VA, calling an Indian-American volunteer for his Democratic opponent, ex-Navy Sec. James Webb, "macaca." Allen loses the election.

The staff of Sen. Evan Bayh , D-IN, creates a Facebook page for Bayh. The innovative move is reported by TV networks and major newspapers. When Bayh is asked by The Indianapolis Star what he thinks of his page, he says he doesn’t know what it is. "I'll have to ask about it," Bayh said. "As long as it's not a singles thing, it's OK."

August 2010:

The Digital IQ of senators is ranked in a study by Scott Galloway of New York University and Doug Guthrie of George Washington University. Based on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blog and website presences, the top three are: John McCain, R-AZ, Jim DeMint, R-SC, and Scott Brown, R-MA. Next on the list were Al Franken, D-MN, Harry Reid, D-NV, and John Cornyn, R-TX).

Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat running for re-election in Florida's 8th district, is about to find out if the promise of social media is meaningful. According to a recent Sunshine State News poll, Grayson is trailing Republican challenger Daniel Webster by seven points. According to Facebook, however, Grayson is far, far ahead of Webster (30,467 to 4,584) in Facebook users who "like" the candidates' respective pages.

But as Facebook users know all too well, a "fan" may not always be a fan and a "friend" may not always be a friend. And sometimes "likes" is just a five letter word.

Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, according to Delany, can be double-edged swords. Engaging with a vast digital audience can attract supporters from outside your district. "The good thing is that they can donate," Delany says. "But the bad side is that they can't vote for you.  So, if it's not careful, a campaign can spend a lot of effort on people who can't actually help them on election day."

Which brings us to the story of Artur Davis.

Bells And Whistles

Writing for The Birmingham News, Mary Orndoff reports that Davis, a Democrat who represents Alabama's 7th congressional district, "went from national rising star to the losing end of a gubernatorial primary landslide back home, said hyperpartisanship in Washington and open hostility from fellow Democrats in Alabama have left him aggrieved and politically homeless."

In early 2009, Davis announced he was running for governor of Alabama. For a while he was expected to win and at one point enjoyed a 30-point lead in the polls. He ended up losing the Democratic primary in June 2010 to Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks — by 24 points.

According to Orndoff,  Davis — who is African-American — says he was a victim of racist sabotage by black political leaders who disliked "Davis' centrist record and go-it-alone style." She says he was outfoxed by the state's black political groups, who were never comfortable with Davis in the first place. They were rankled by several of his political initiatives and by his vote against President Obama's health care plan.

And, Orndoff adds, Davis relied too much on social media.

"Davis has long acknowledged that he ran a poor campaign that wasted money on Internet and social media 'bells and whistles'," she writes, "but was slow to respond to attacks. It burned through $800,000 in 2009 with no real campaign infrastructure to show for it.

"Instead of hiring field operatives and priming the get-out-the-vote effort, he was left with lots of friends on Facebook and a nice website. It was that lack of a ground game, the kind of face-to-face network of advocates in small towns and coffee shops, that allowed the campaign attacks against him to take hold, he said. Even after seven years as a congressman, he did not have a grassroots organization."

And so, for politicians, the lesson may be clear: The media is not always the message. It is easy. It is relatively cheap. It may ultimately transform American politics. And the conventionally wise say a politician is a fool to not have a social media presence.

But caveat tweeter. Just because people respond to you through social media — by liking and friending and following you — that does not mean their virtual support will always translate into actual support.

But it might. For now the vote is still out.

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