Is the 2012 election the social media election? This was the big question at Social Media Week's "Election 2012 and the Fight for the Internet” panel, hosted by the Washington Post on Friday, Feb. 17.
Speaking on the panel were Post reporters Felicia Sonmez, Amanda Zamora, and Karen Tumulty; political strategist Joe Trippi; SocialFlow VP of Research and Development Gilad Lotan; and Hitwise Analyst Cristina Bell.
The discussion centered on social media and the Internet and its unprecedented effects on the race for the White House this election year versus previous years.
"It’s the network, stupid,” chimed in Trippi. The veteran strategist is riffing off the old quote from James Carville during Clinton's 1992 campaign. But, he makes a good point.
Since the 2008 presidential election, the use of social media has grown exponentially, making Twitter and Facebook two major campaign tools. Referencing a Pew Center for the People & the Press report, the panel noted that 6 percent of the population gets their campaign coverage from Facebook, and 2 percent from Twitter. Sounds like small numbers, but, in reality, that's close to 6 million people tuned in to Twitter for campaign updates.
The wealth of information available in these outlets, from voter data to documented feedback, allows election campaigns to get on a level playing field with the mainstream media. All sides are now employing tactics to win their desired audience, potentially transforming superficial friendships into political artillery.
Tweets are more powerful than campaign spin doctors, said Trippi. Today, candidates get instant feedback on their performance and instantaneous fact checks. We no longer have to wait for politicians to determine who won a debate, he said. We know from reactions on social media.
As editorial manager of PRN’s Washington, D.C., bureau and lead voice on our Twitter policy handle, all of this hit home. But, the biggest takeaway for me was really realizing the power social media has with the public. Every day in office, we see how the news cycle can change at the drop of a hat, with a new bill on Capitol Hill or an “oops” moment on the campaign trail. One story can drive a whole series of reactionary copy, but if something really strikes a chord with the public, social media is what turns up the volume, driving days – sometimes weeks – of conversation amongst both friends and strangers.
We saw similar impact with the heavily politicized Occupy movement. Calls made on social networks – though sometimes resulting in mixed, critical reactions – helped foster a national dialogue about the issues at the forefront of the protest, ultimately helping grow the "occupation" around the world. It makes sense that we expect a similar movement around the election as each party (political or otherwise) ramps up their fight to be seen and heard in the social sphere.
As for tips for journalists covering the upcoming contest: Don't let search and social trends alone dictate your coverage, said Sonmez. Social media – and Twitter especially – allow media to amplify and empower the voters, by helping get their voices heard inside all the noise. So, it’s important, now more than ever, to share a unique approach. “Be provocative without being partisan," added Tumulty.
So, what’s next?
As Trippi concluded, social media is now part of a political reporter’s journalistic life, but, the future may hold something even more spectacular.
Will new social outlets emerge as champions of political discourse? Will the effects we see go beyond the national stage to local and state elections? Will the developing social relationship between politicians and the public affect how the political media does their job?
Only time will tell.
To read corresponding conversation on Twitter around the event, follow #SMWcampaign and #SWMpolitics.
You can also see how PR Newswire is covering the 2012 election via our policy handle on Twitter: twitter.com/prnpolicy