If you have any doubt about the role of social media in American politics, consider this: the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney produced 10.3 million tweets in just 90 minutes, making it one of the most tweeted events ever.
Four years ago, Twitter was still in its infancy, and on the day of the election, the Web site saw 1.8 million tweets sent. Today, that many are sent every eight minutes.
Indeed, this year social media may be the single most important part of the candidates’ voter outreach efforts. Both candidates have extensive footprints on Web sites like Pinterest, Google+, Instagram and Tumblr; they have even assembled playlists on the social-networking music site Spotify.
Whether digital campaigns will make a difference on election day is another question.
As in 2008, Obama has taken the lead in social-network campaigning. Obama has 20.7 million Twitter followers, versus Romney’s 1.4 million, while the president – or, rather, his campaign staff – also tweets about five times as much as his opponent.
The president likewise has 34,600 followers on Pinterest, a “virtual pinboard,” against Romney’s 1,700 (though Romney’s wife, Ann, has more than 12,400 followers).
Obama’s success comes in part from being the first mover. He opened his Twitter account in 2007; Romney didn’t arrive until 2009. Obama also gained invaluable experience running a social-media campaign during the 2008 election, and his organization has kept pace with emerging technology ever since.
The biggest advantage, though, is the affinity between Obama and the Facebook generation. Young, well-educated voters overwhelmingly prefer him, and they also dominate sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Romney, on the other hand, does better with older voters, who are less likely to use – or be impressed by – social media.
More important than numbers is the manner in which Obama – and to a lesser extent, Romney – communicates with his supporters. In 2012, social media is no longer a novelty, but a central part of American culture. Successful political candidates must not just use the medium; they must understand its quirks.
That means, for one thing, understanding that different sites have different attitudes -- something the Obama campaign has mastered. Instead of one single message across different platforms, the Obama team tailors its message and style to the tone that dominates each site.
For example, because Twitter, with its 140-character limit, leaves little opportunity for personality, Obama himself – as well as his wife, Michelle – will sometimes write tweets himself, signing them “BO.”
Obama himself also took to the news-oriented social-networking site Reddit for an “ask me anything” session, in which users could send him unscripted and unmoderated questions.
Or take Tumblr, where users often post photographs and short clips from their favorite TV shows and films, often with joking comments written over them. Obama’s campaign used a clip of the actress Lindsay Lohan saying “It’s Oct. 3,” from the movie “Mean Girls,” to remind supporters when the first presidential debate would occur. (Nevertheless, a few days later Lohan endorsed Mitt Romney.)
The president took a much different approach to Pinterest, which is popular with women and craft hobbyists: the campaign’s most popular page is built around Michelle, who “pins” her favorite recipes, photos of her family and short articles about “people who inspire me.”
Obama’s efforts have been paying off. According the company PeekAnalytics, which examines social media trends, Obama is almost 10 times as influential on Twitter as Romney, as measured by the number of followers, compounded by the number of their followers. In other words, when Obama tweets, influential people listen, and when those people retweet his comments, their followers listen as well.
Social networks have also changed the way candidates act offline. In the past, a political speech might have had a few powerful sentences, designed to fit in a newspaper article the next day. But now that YouTube allows Internet users to watch entire speeches, and then decide for themselves what were the best parts, campaign speechwriters have had to adapt their styles to make every sentence a sound bite.
At the same time, candidates have learned, often the hard way, that even the slightest gaffe can produce a damaging swirl of attention almost as soon as it is uttered. It is no longer enough to wait for the news media to process a poorly phrased comment; as Mitt Romney saw with the leaked video of him dismissing the “47 percent” of American voters who receive government assistance, social media guarantees that judgment will be swift, widespread and uncontrollable.
The two sides have also begun to aim their social media efforts at each other. After months of focusing on soft subjects like the president’s family, this fall Barack Obama’s various web sites began to attack Mitt Romney directly.
After Romney said that he would cut government funding for the Public Broadcasting Service, home of the classic children’s program “Sesame Street,” the Obama campaign distributed a Tumblr-style photograph of Big Bird, one of the show’s main characters, with the caption: “Mitt Romney’s Plan to Cut the Deficit: Fire This Guy.”
Romney has had some success at turning social media against his opponent, too. After the Obama campaign introduced an online slideshow about a fictional character named Julia and how she would benefit from the president’s policies, the Republicans made her the subject of countless tweets, asking, for example, “Did u tell #Julia how much debt you left her?”
It remains to be seen, however, whether all this effort will translate into turnout at the polls. While raising a candidate’s exposure is always important, it is unclear whether users who do something as easy as clicking “like” on a Facebook post will make the effort to stand in line on election day.
It may even be that social-networking activity can have a depressive effect on supporter activism; if someone feels they have contributed to the campaign by forwarding a Tumblr post, a fun but minuscule addition to a candidate’s momentum, they might be less likely to join a more involved but effective effort, like a voter-registration drive.
And while their social-media efforts have helped Obama and Romney seem more human and in touch with the rest of the country, they have mostly reinforced, rather than improved, their public images. Obama hardly needs to convince the majority of young people that he is the hipper, more culturally aware of the two candidates.
Moreover, neither candidate seems to see social media as a two-way street. While they are happy to see users retweet or repin their comments and photos, they rarely do the same for users. That makes sense – the anonymity of the Internet means you often don’t know exactly who is behind a tweet or a Tumblr page – but it also means they are limiting their full use of the medium’s power.
Above all, Obama’s advantage in social media may be a bubble. Romney’s weakness on Twitter and Facebook is in part a strategic choice: he knows he won’t win over most of the younger voters, and so he spends his money and time elsewhere.
But Romney would never avoid Facebook and Twitter completely. In fact, it’s a measure of social media’s dominance in our political culture that he can’t avoid being on them, that he has to at least pretend to be interested in retweets and hash tags and “likes.”
In 20012, social-media activism is like traditional advertising: you can’t sell a product (or a candidate) without it, but since everyone is doing it, there’s no way to know how much it really helps. The only thing that’s sure is that social-media politics is here to stay.