Which came first, the voter or the Tweeter? Or, as the case may be, the Tumblr, YouTuber, or Facebooker? There is no doubt that the 2012 presidential election will be remembered as the first with mainstream use of social media. A recent Pew Research study found 60 percent of adults now use social media, and 39 percent have used it as an outlet to discuss politics. President Obama has 32 million Facebook fans, and Republican candidate Mitt Romney boasts 12 million. Obama’s first message following the announcement of his electoral win went out to his 1.7 million Twitter followers: This happened because of you. Thank you, he tweeted. Another post-victory message of “Four more years,” and a photo or the President hugging first lady Michelle Obama became the most highly-retweeted message in the company’s six-year history.
Obama may have won the 2008 election in part because of his strategic use of social media, but in 2012 there weren’t many candidates who didn’t follow suit. Analysts are now left to determine what impact tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube had on election results, as well as if and how well social media buzz predicted election results.
Facebook Inc. (FB)’s internal Talk Meter, which measures how often events are posted on the network—rates the election the most talked about event in 2012. During election day alone, Facebook saw more than 71 million election-related posts and comments and Obama was mentioned 10 million times. According to social media analysis firm Attention, 64 percent of presidential race conversation across all networks mentioned Obama, compared to Romney’s 36 percent. But do political posters influence others or might they just as well be talking to themselves?
Just as American voters are often highly polarized, so are their social networks. Most people form online social circles with similar-minded users. In fact, Pew conducted a poll in March that found 9 percent of social-network users have chosen to block or “unfriend” someone based on a political disagreement. Therefore, when voters post their most persuasive comments online, they are more often than not preaching to the choir.
“Social media helps to reinforce the already strong tendency toward polarization—and worsens those trends in the electorate,” University of Michigan political science professor Michael Heaney told the San Francisco Chronicle. “People search out these little groups where everyone agrees with them.”
If social networking served as any sort of force in the election, it wasn’t because voters used Twitter and Facebook as their personal soap box, but instead because the campaigns used the tools to target messages to particular demographics. While Obama catered to Facebook users in 2008, he showed his savvy in all that is Twitter in 2012, which may have helped reinforce his image with young voters. The Hollywood Reporter noted Obama’s 18 million Twitter followers at the end of August—in the heat of the campaign—dwarfed Romney’s 852,000 followers. Edison Research conducted a national exit poll which found 19 percent of voters were aged 18 to 29, a percent higher than in 2008. Of those young voters, 60 percent voted for Obama.
So did Obama’s larger social media following predict his win, or was it simply a contributing factor? StateTech magazine reported five recent election winners who had more Twitter followers than their opponents, including the gubernatorial races in Louisiana, California, Ohio and Texas, as well as the mayoral race in Chicago.
“While further studies are needed, it appears that social media analytics may be an underutilized resource for predicting presidential election results,” said marketing firm PME 360 CEO Ryan Adams. “It can be argued that social media engagement signifies an informal vote for a candidate.”
So did Twitter win the 2012 presidential election? Or did policy? Or maybe it was Youtube. Blogger Daniel Burrus offers some insight:
“The biggest problem for Mitt Romney and his team was not making an integrated social media strategy a strategic priority,” Burrus wrote. “If it had been a priority, the election may have ended differently.”