Campaigning in Cyberspace
Throughout the last decade politicians have been making increasing efforts to establish a strong online presence. As the 2012 presidential election approaches, more Americans have access to the internet than ever before and two-thirds of online adults use some sort of social media platform (Johnson). Social media websites– Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have dramatically changed the way we communicate with one another and share information. This paper will focus on how these well-established social media websites hope to revolutionize the way political campaigns are advertised, covered, and organized in the 2012 election cycle.
A Brief History of Politicking on the Web
The first substantial use of the internet as a political tool began in 1997 with right wing forum FreeRepublic.com. The left leaning MoveOn.org followed a year later. In 2000, John McCain provided a significant moment in online fundraising when he raised more than $500,000 over the internet in less than 24 hours. A glimpse into the full potential of the internet was offered in 2003, when Howard Dean, Democratic presidential nominee hopeful, experimented with several groundbreaking ideas. His campaign assaulted cyberspace on all fronts with SMS texting, a YouTube-like online video website called Dean TV, a pre-Facebook-style social website called Deanline, and an online event organizer called Get Local (Davy). It is widely believed that Dean’s campaign laid the framework for Obama’s successful online presence.
In 2006 the internet raised less than one twentieth of total campaign funds. The bulk of the cash raised online was spent on television advertising, direct mail, and telephone calls (Cornfield). Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign used the internet to change the way politicians’ organize supporters, advertise to voters, raise funds, defend against attacks, and communicate with constituents. The majority of Obama’s donations came from donors giving just $200 or less. He achieved this by ensuring that on each official campaign website there was a donation widget (Byrne). “Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee,” said Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of The Huffington Post. His campaign took full advantage of the free internet tools available in 2007-08. “The campaign’s official stuff they created for YouTube was watched for 14.5 million hours,” said political consultant Joe Trippi. “To buy 14.5 million hours on broadcast TV is $47 million.” As of March 23, 2012, Obama’s 37-minute speech on race, “A More Perfect Union” has been watched by 6.9 million people (Miller).
The “Obama for America” brand proved to be a valuable election tool. Paired with website My.BarackObama.com, the award winning advertising campaign provided certain insider information and made users feel like a part of history (Simpson). While the website’s political impact didn’t last very long after the election, the Obama team is hard at work on a replacement service.
With the Republican Party winding down its presidential nominee process and all signs pointing to Mitt Romney as the nominee, the real battle for the White House is set to begin soon. Obama has the advantage of already being well established in the virtual realm, but once the Republican Party unifies behind one candidate, a similar online strategy is sure to be seen. If either presidential candidate wants to win, a focused effort on Facebook is essential.
Facebook had over 845 million monthly active users as of December 31, 2011. In January, the social networking giant saw an average of 483 million daily active users (Protalinski). Facebook provides politicians, news outlets, and voters a free webpage to share ideas, videos, and communicate to one another. Facebook Ads provides direct advertising to voters based on their age, location, and interests. Interest groups and campaigns gain access to users’ personal information via the Facebook Ads service and can connect directly to potential voters.
425 million of the monthly users accessing Facebook were doing so via a mobile device. Facebook recently purchased Gowalla, who provided an app that allows users to check in via smartphone to share their location with friends and earn digital “stamps,” The stamps equate to a “virtual passport,” and users get candidate-branded stamps for attending campaign events. The “passport” can be seen on the users Facebook timeline, promoting the users support (Carr).
The relatively new, check-in feature by Facebook allows users to use their ID to log in to a variety of websites. For the 2012 election, Obama campaign’s official website will not require an official account; it will instead allow users to login with their Facebook ID. The campaign, meanwhile, gets immediate access to your Facebook network, plus whatever information you choose to enter about the voters you eventually contact (Romano). In the 2012 election, Facebook will essentially be used as a massive database for politicians to connect and advertise to potential voters.
Much like Facebook, Twitter allows users to make a profile page, briefly describe themselves, and follow other users. The main difference is that Twitter limits all posts to 140 characters, much like traditional SMS. While politicians can make a handle and tweet about issues in real time, Twitter’s most notable contribution to the political climate of 2012 lies in its ability to break news instantaneously.
As technology shortens the news cycle, deadlines are on the hour as opposed to a few times a day. While many known Washington journalists have left traditional media outlets to fill roles at Web publications, the majority of people tracking the candidates this year don’t fit the traditional definition of journalist at all. Paid and un-paid bloggers attend campaign events, tweet impressions, and capture contradictions or gotcha moments. Essentially, anybody with a smartphone or laptop can be a journalist. There is growing competition within news sources to break stories first, even if winning is only a measure of seconds. Politicians are aware of this constant coverage and off-the-record moments with reporters rarely occur. George Allen, the senator from Virginia who ruined his whole reelection campaign with the use of the racial slur “macaca,” showed that when you’re under constant surveillance in the social media world, you must choose your words carefully. Many candidates are skipping press releases altogether and speaking with their voters directly through Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Tweeting and submitting videos on to YouTube leaves nothing to chance. Everything can be carefully scripted and edited before being submitted to the masses. Micro-blogging through Twitter is favored among many journalists in the attempt to stay up to date on politicians. With the many services offered on the internet, reporters no longer have to personally be around a candidate to know what he or she is doing. In fact, many reporters consider it a disadvantage to be caught “in the bubble.” As journalists struggle to keep tabs on every issue, many independent organizations have formed in hopes of filling in the gaps. Democratic organization American Bridge 21st Century dispatches trackers to Republican events in hopes of catching gotcha moments and informing the press of contradictions (Enda).
New for the 2012 campaign, Twitter will be offering a special version of their “promoted tweets” product. Political ads will be differentiated from Twitter’s other promoted products with purple icons instead of orange. Campaigns can enable a Federal Election Commission-compliant notification revealing the ad’s backer, viewable when users mouse over the ads (Delo). Looking to profit from the projected $6 billion in campaign spending in the 2012 election cycle, branching out into political ads is an obvious move for Twitter. Obtaining a handle on the platform seems to be an automatic move for politicians who may be willing to pay to have their message heard.
Gotcha moments, unauthorized campaign videos, and hard-hitting debate questions from YouTube users will continue to change the political landscape. The YouTube “Macaca moment” presented by George Allen represents a broad new challenge for candidates, but speaks to the age-old problem of how to control the message. Unscripted moments like these have found new life on the website. For George Allen, that short YouTube clip, viewed millions of times, essentially ended his political career. “If not for YouTube, Allen would most likely be one of the front-runners today for the GOP presidential nomination,” says Mark Preston, of CNN. Sen. John McCain also fell victim to his own words. “Remember that old Beach Boys song, bomb Iran. Bomb. Bomb. Bomb.” McCain was just having fun with a crowd of supporters in South Carolina, but his comments got played over and over again on YouTube and became a story picked up by the mainstream media.
YouTube is also forcing candidates to deal with their past comments. The ease at which video can be posted and distributed on YouTube is giving old debate clips new life, forcing presidential hopefuls to explain conflicting positions.
“I believe that abortion should be safe and legal.” That was former Massachusetts Governor and current Republican presidential nominee frontrunner Mitt Romney from a 1994 debate with Sen. Ted Kennedy. Romney has since changed his position on abortion, but those old clips supported his critics’ charge that Romney flip-flopped on abortion.
YouTube can also help campaigns looking for new ways to harness the power of the popular Web site. YouTube users can submit text responses and make videos to voice their opinion. During the Democratic nominee selection process of 2007-08, an anonymous user uploaded the “Vote Different” Orwellian clip, which portrayed Hillary Clinton as Big Brother in a remake of an Apple Computer ad from 1984. The final frames pointed to Obama’s presidential Web site. In many cases, the candidates don’t have total control over their message any more, and that’s forcing them to change the way they campaign (CNN).
In 2010 YouTube was starting to see growth in its “promoted videos” product, something that Obama’s groundbreaking campaign did not test two years prior. The official YouTube page claims the product will, “attract customers, viewers and subscribers to your business, organization, or video channel by displaying your video ad against relevant search results and related video content on YouTube. This easy-to-use tool gives video content owners an affordable and scalable way to promote your video messages across YouTube through a dynamic, auction-based marketplace.”
YouTube’s promoted videos service allows users to have complete control over their message and how it’s distributed. They can choose which videos their ad is linked to and use Google Ad-Words to direct certain search terms to their clip. Even though politicians cannot control the unauthorized videos, they can direct official content to the viewers via YouTube’s advertising options.
While Facebook is the most used of all the social media outlets, its direct impact on politics seems to be the slightest. While interest groups and politicians can befriend and advertise to its magnitude of users, Twitter and YouTube seem to have a more instantaneous and buzz-worthy status. YouTube will probably be the most “successful” in the 2012 election as it closely resembles TV, the medium of choice for political advertising and promotion.
There is no doubt that television will remain the preferred platform in 2012’s round of political campaigning. No aspect of the political process has been affected more by television than political campaigns and elections. The first presidential election to see extensive use of television was the 1952 race between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. The most significant innovation related to the role of television in the 1952 campaign was undoubtedly Eisenhower’s use of short spot commercials to enhance his television image. The Eisenhower campaign utilized a talented product advertising executive to devise a series of short spots that appeared, just like product ads, during commercial breaks in standard television programming slots. Not only did this strategy break new ground for political campaigning, but many observers have credited the spots with helping Eisenhower to craft a friendly, charming persona that contributed to his eventual electoral success. Stevenson made it easier for the Eisenhower campaign by refusing to participate in this type of electronic campaigning. Although Stevenson did produce television commercials for the 1956 campaign, he was never able to overcome Eisenhower’s popularity.
Every presidential campaign since 1952 has relied heavily on political television spots. In the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Ross Perot, and the national parties spent over $120 million dollars for production and airing of television spots. Even below the presidential level, spots now dominate most major statewide and Congressional races in the United States, accounting for 50-75% of campaign budgets.
Research has shown that voters actually learn more (particularly about issues) from political spots than they do from television news or television debates. The use of television advertising in political campaigns has often been criticized for “lowering the level” of political discourse. Observers bemoan that television fosters drama and visual imagery, leading to a concentration on candidate images instead of policy issues. However, scholarly research has shown that television spots for campaigns at all levels are much more likely to concentrate on issues than on image (Kaid). While social media is catching on, it will remain as merely an accessory to television and other established forms of campaigning in the 2012 elections.
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