Social Media and Politics

By Kimberly Reyes (@CommDuCoeur)

Yesterday, Facebook rolled out its official Congress on Facebook page, designed to highlight innovative uses of Facebook by members of Congress and serve as a directory of federal legislators on the social network.  With much of the political discourse among citizens taking place on a digital stage, Congress on Facebook attempts to bridge conversations between public figures and the private citizens.

This bold and highly criticized move by Mark Zuckerberg & company comes in the wake of a study conducted by the Congressional Research Service showing that 205 U.S. Representatives and Senators were registered with Twitter as of September 2009, generating over 7,000 tweets in a two-month period.  Aside from sharing their daily workout routines, it seems that politicians have a lot to say about the issues and policies that impact the American public, and they’re using social media to do it.

The study shows that the Republican Party is leading the trend, with 60% representatives registered with the popular microblogging service.  There is also a significant spike in tweets generated by House Republicans while in-session (I guess you don’t really have to pay attention if you follow C-Span).

While Republicans are currently dominating the Twittersphere, it was the Democrats who first demonstrated the power of social media.

THE 2008 ELECTION

President Obama’s campaign for the White House was innovative even before social media was involved.  Rather than appeal to the wealthy and influential in strategic states for large campaign donations, Obama relied on more numerous small donations across all 50 states, according to Rahaf Arfoush, campaign volunteer and author of Yes We Did! An inside look at how social media built the Obama brand.  It was clear that the best way to execute this strategy was through social media.

Two-thirds of the fundraising outreach was done online, combining Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter, with low-tech media, such as e-mail, phone, and text messaging.  There was even an iPhone application, and the opportunity for supporters to connect via a “My Barack Obama” profile.  The multi-channel approach clearly conveyed the message that the 2008 election wasn’t about the candidates; it was about the American people.

And it only got stronger: supporters turned to Google Maps to get details about campaign events, and a website component connected neighbors to spread the word locally.  Barack Obama also introduced crowdsourcing to the national lexicon when he launched Change.gov in 2008, which invited the American people to share their stories, discuss important issues, and describe their vision for the future.

DRIVING THE BANDWAGON

While Arizona Senator and presidential candidate John McCain was a bit slow to adopt social media during his race for the White House, the red team has recently stepped up their participation and now reportedly rule video hosting platform YouTube, with 89% Republicans in Congress owning YouTube channels, compared to 74% of Democrats.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is probably the best right-wing case study of best practices in political social media.  His extensive gubernatorial campaign was comprised of a sophisticated website, a good understanding of Google Advertising, the creation of his own Ning social network, and text message updates.  The best part of McDonnell’s social media campaign?  A video of him and Mike Huckabee rocking out.

Just this morning, the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched an iPhone application.  Users can access newsfeeds from different channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, and RSS, watch video through YouTube, and get information on local candidates using geolocation capabilites.

SOCIAL MEDIA OVERSEAS

Our example of what not to do comes to us from across the pond in the form of a very short-lived campaign called Cash-Gordon.

The UK campaign arose from criticism that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been selling power and influence over the British Labour Party to Charlie Whelan’s Unite trade union.  Supporters of the anti-Brown movement are encouraged to use social media to promote the campaign, and earn points for their efforts.

Aside from being a blatant rip-off of a US anti-energy tax campaign, the Cash Gordon effort rose and fell in record time due to a number of factors, which are illustrated in Meg Pikard’s “Anatomy of a Hashtag.”

The first leak that brought down the Cash Gordon ship was the site’s Twitter stream, which displayed tweets marked with the #cashgordon hashtag.  Users soon discovered that simple html code can manipulate the appearance of a tweet on the site, and inappropriate content started appearing on the site in big, bold red letters.

Even worse, hackers implanted crude pop-ups and even found a way to redirect visitors to labour.org.uk.  The Cash Gordon Campaign, which reportedly cost a cool $15,000.00 thus came to a quick and painful end.

“Hey, What’s up?”

There are the first words from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s Twitter account.  Supposedly angered by the anti-Socialist rhetoric being spread through social media, Chavez opened his own account and was thrilled to have gathered 106,000 followers (now almost 330,000) in two days, reports Reuters.  So thrilled, in fact, that he invited his friends Fidel Castro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales to join.

So the question now is…who wants to be his friend on Facebook?

To wrap things up, simply put, social media can act as either a tool or a weapon for your political campaign: after all, it’s because of YouTube that we’ll never forget the “byah!” heard ‘round the world.