Mr. President: Tweeting his way into the White House

Pete Souza / Official White House photo

by Ben Kutner

It’s no surprise that social media will have a tremendous impact on the upcoming presidential election. The 2008 election was the first to occur after Facebook had soared to its ubiquitous position, but the current election offers new sites and millions of new social media users. The pool for potential voters is enough to make any campaigner salivate. Are the campaigns savvy enough to maximize that potential?

On March 5, the marriage between the youth-based social media world and the agenda of the GOP frontrunner was blatantly evident. Mitt Romney tweeted @BarackObama, “again playing the politics of class warfare while proposing large tax increases. I will cut tax rates for all Americans.”

As most people suspect, the presidential candidates themselves aren’t likely to be maintaining their social media pages. But surely the campaigns invest thought and strategy into their sites’ content.

Social media offers these campaigns the ability to seem young and hip — an invaluable opportunity for a 76-year-old candidate like Ron Paul, who may have the most active social media pages for anyone his age.

“Ninety-four percent of voting age users engaged by a political message in social media watched the entire message, and nearly 40 percent went on to share it with their friends,” according to a 2011 study conducted by SocialVibe.

But the GOP candidates are not using social media to its full extent, said Jacob Soboroff, executive director for Why Tuesday? and news correspondent for AMC, in an interview with the Memo. “(There) doesn’t seem to be a lot of back and forth with people.”

Social media sites are meant to serve as an environment for conversations and the exchange of ideas. What is Facebook without discussion? As Soboroff pointed out, the GOP candidates have only been using their respective pages to post updates and notifications about their campaigns rather than opening the floor to questions by potential voters.

In 2010, YouTube featured an interview with President Barack Obama in which the questions were culled from YouTube submissions. Obama also participated in a “Town Hall” Twitter event, answering questions which had been tweeted. One question was tweeted by Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Clearly not a stranger to the digital conversation, Obama’s social media efforts are intended to level the conversation field for the common American and to strip politics of its exclusionary aura.

But Obama’s social media extravaganzas are fraught with limitation. Questions submitted are screened closely, and we can’t help but ask whether questions were selected in order to shape the conversation in favor of the current administration.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will continue on these Internet conversations during his presidential campaign, although it seems extremely likely that he will.

Social media also comes in handy for political organizations and advocacy groups. Soboroff’s organization, Why Tuesday?, uses social media to advocate for changing Election Day to a weekend day. “It’s the main way that we communicate with our supporters,” he said, adding that his work would be nearly impossible without the help of social media.

Soboroff has tried to engage candidates through Twitter regarding Why Tuesday?’s objective, but his attempts went unanswered. Why Tuesday? had to travel to Iowa to ask Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in person — an effort which seems unnecessary given the deceptively rich activity of both campaigns’ Facebook and Twitter pages.

“The question is, are campaigns going to be innovative in the way that they engage their supporters?” Soboroff said.


Official White House photo / Pete Souza

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