In 1920, radio transformed elections. In 1960, TV reigned. Now, online media rank supreme, with election campaigns morphing into constant social-media-streams, customized to fit voters’ myriad devices and attention spans. In the 2016 presidential elections, social media are the key battleground for any politician hoping to make the cut. According to The Hill, “9.5 percent of political media budgets could go towards digital media — a total of $1 billion.”
“Access to information has been revolutionized,” says Jessica Singleton (@jessay286), chief digital officer at the City of New York and a panelist at NYWICI’s Cocktails & Conversations “Technology’s Influence on Politics” that was held during social media week on Oct. 20, 2015. The sold-out event brought together a panel of media experts at Bloomberg’s sparkling headquarters in Midtown to discuss the changing media landscape of political campaigning. Panelists also included Gillea Allison, digital strategist at Blue State Digital (@gilleaa),Geoffrey Borshof, CEO of Mosaic Strategies Group (@MosaicSTG) and Julie Wood, director of Global Communications at Kickstarter (@juliewood). The moderator was Melinda Henneberger, a senior writer at Bloomberg.
President Obama’s tweet announcing his victory in 2008 (in the so-called “Facebook election”), was retweeted 157 times. His 2012 victory tweet (during the “Twitter election”) was retweeted more than 800,000 times, according to a study on social media use in campaigns conducted by the University of North Carolina. The 2016 election might turn out to be the “Instagram election” with its quick and quirky graphics and reach even the youngest voters — 300 million of whom use Instagram more than any other social media platform.
Democratic voters help get the message out for Democrats
Democrats have held an edge over Republicans in their online-driven campaigns, since they make it a habit to recruit young tech talent early on who are fluent in every conceivable social media platform. The party has surpassed the Republicans in engaging people online, explains Gillea. “Democratic voters help get the message out for Democrats.” They are eager to topple the top-down approach that is driven by mainstream editors and elite thought-leaders. But not just age, also gender affects social media campaigns: “Women are sharers by nature online,” says Gillea. “Campaigns can capitalize on women’s social influence and ability to organize communities.”
So, are we better off perusing a constant stream of news, or have social media skewed the message completely, causing voters to tune out eventually and politicians to put up their guards? Social media give the power back to the people to make up their minds and take action, says Jessica. “Tech in elections on a global scale is revolutionary. Decisions are made because people get more information.”
The confluence of streaming video apps — like Vine, Meerkat, Periscope and Snapchat — could be a political game changer and democratize information gathering and distribution as never before. Everyone is searching for the authentic voice, says Julie. “Drumpf seems to be succeeding the most at that. And campaigns have to find their authentic brand voice to succeed.” In this environment, voters demand more and raise the quality of what to expect, states Gillea. It has set standards in what the experience should be like and has elevated the expectations from politicians.
That said, Geoffrey argues that digital has also triggered an “accidental transparency”: messages go viral, trend immediately and as a result cause politicians to clam up to become less authentic and truthful. They know that they are observed 24/7. “Accidental gaffes go viral; it changes the game,” cautions Geoffrey. On the other hand, politicians can utilize social media whenever traditional media won’t give them adequate coverage or won’t cooperate.
The constant need to feed the news stream can lead to redundancy and sloppiness. “You have to be current when promoting articles,” warns Geoffrey. Only very good older material should be pushed again to be picked up by social media. “The notion of outdated on the internet is outdated. But the up-to-date physical “ask” still makes a big difference. Don’t expect your content to drive itself.”
At the end, however, digital hasn’t changed everything and final decisions are still being made by how compelling the politicians are, according to Julie. “The medium has changed — but people haven’t changed their voting habits.”
NYWICI Twitter transcript from the event:
Related Read: Political Campaigns Are Wasteful—So Turn Them Into Startups (Wired Magazine, Oct. 28, 2015)
Also published on Medium.