Politics 2011: Politics gets real in the virtual world of social media

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |   July 24, 2011 at 4:54 AM
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Want to catch that debate among U.S. presidential hopefuls but aren't near a television? Go to Twitter. Need that candidate's position on a subject? Check a Web site. Gotta follow a candidate's schedule? Log in to Facebook.

Whatever you need from a political candidate, you can probably find it online -- be it Web site, social forum or photo-sharing site.

This isn't our parents' presidential campaign.

Instead of sound bites on the nightly news and one or two televised debates, candidates hoping to make 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. their temporary address are bombarding potential voters on the airwaves and through the Internet.

Candidates are already staking their claims on what may be one of the most important pieces of real estate during the election -- social media Web sites, from Twitter, to Facebook to YouTube. A mere Web site -- unheard of even a few elections ago -- simply isn't enough.

Social networking has grown exponentially and if politicians and parties want to tap into the voting pool, this is where they have to go, The Huffington Post wrote recently.

Also, free speech trumps regulation online. With the onslaught of super-PACs, shaping the political landscape between now and November belongs to those who can get their messages out effectively in a digital world.

President Obama successfully used the Internet to get his message out while taking in hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors using Facebook. Businessman Herman Cain and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, both declared candidates in the Republican presidential nominating race, use online "moneybombing" to raise donations.

Obama also used online media to announce his re-election bid and conduct a virtual town hall.

Just last week, the first-ever Twitter debate was conducted among six of the announced Republican candidates vying for the 2012 presidential nomination. The candidates spent 90 minutes answering questions using no more than 140 characters -- the limit on Twitter posts.

The debate was organized by Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Liberty Caucus, who told ConcordPatch.com the event was a success.

"There was a lot of public interaction; overall, it was very good," Hemingway told the New Hampshire site. "We had an immense amount of traffic and there is no way to predict or know the type of reaction there was going to be."

Of course there's a certain amount of trust in who's posting what on Twitter during a candidates debate.

"Do we have some secure way to prove they are [the ones posting remarks]? No, we don't," Hemingway said. "But I don't know any candidate who's going to allow their junior staffer or new-media guy to go answer questions in a debate for them, no matter what format."

Earlier this year, articles were written about Republican congressional members' general reluctance to embrace Facebook -- but more readily taking to Twitter than Democrats. Facebook, which permanently stamped its imprint on national politics since Obama used it in his 2008 run, wants to let Republicans play in its sandbox, too.

Five high-profile GOP strategists have joined Facebook's outreach team in recent months, RealClearPolitics.com reported. One main reason: They want to learn how Facebook works so they can pass along that knowledge to their party's politicians.

"President Obama proved Facebook can be a very potent tool in elections," Joel Kaplan, George W. Bush's former deputy chief of staff now vice president of U.S. public policy for the site, told RealClearPolitics.com. "Facebook is changing the way people are living their lives -- certainly in the public policy space."

A branding effort is under way at Facebook to make the 2012 election into "The Social Campaign" by linking candidates and campaigns to all of the site's networking capabilities.

"The color of the site is blue," Kaplan notes, "but the color of the company is purple."

In his re-election bid, Obama again will use social media networks to reach all of his online friends.

"The successful campaign is going to be one that integrates all the various elements of the digital channel -- e-mail, text, Web site, mobile apps and social networks -- together as one digital program and also mixing the digital program together with the offline reality of field organizations," Joe Rospars, the Obama campaign's chief digital strategist, told TMCnet.com in a statement.

Political campaigns also are bumping up their use of online advertising, taking advantage of those 15- to 30 seconds of ad time before video clips running on sites such as YouTube and Hulu, TMCnet.com reported.

"We're getting a lot of questions now from people thinking strategically on how to drive their message next year online," Andrew Roos, a political ads executive with Google, said.

Three things give social media the power to influence campaigns, a recent Ad Age study indicated:

Audience: Social media isn't just for the young -- use by people age 50 or better is on the rise. Voters of all political stripes now rely on social media to connect them to campaigns.

Influence: Television isn't as influential as it once was and the average age of the nightly news viewer is nearly 63. If a candidate wants his message heard by the critical 18-35 demographic, that candidate best have some social media chops, Ad Age said. The majority of all Internet ad impressions occur on Facebook and Facebook apps. In today's digital world, Facebook friends' suggestions matter more than a TV commercial or newspaper editorial, so getting a political message into those news feeds on a Facebook page is the vital, Ad Age said.

Money: Serious money is being directed into online and mobile advertising because of their size and power to influence -- and their ability to go viral, yielding more bang for the buck, Ad Age reported.

(Notice how the first three letters spell "aim" -- which candidates must do to reach their virtual friends successfully?)

Plus, political messages within social media promise to engage users. An Ad Age SocialVibe study found that 94 percent of social media users of voting age engaged by a political message watched the entire message, and 39 percent of the viewers shared the message with an average of 130 online friends, rippling beyond the initial, targeted audience.

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