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The fact that political campaigns use social media to try and influence public opinion isn’t new: the “spin cycle” is no longer something that involves private calls to a few grizzled newspaper columnists or TV commentators — instead, there are teams of social-networking staffers working the spin on every conceivable platform. But we rarely get a glimpse inside these “war rooms” until long after the campaign is over.
In a recent research paper, journalism professor Daniel Kreiss got a look at some of the social machinery (PDF link) behind the 2012 campaigns of presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, based on interviews with senior staffers and insiders of both.
One thing that dramatically changed from the previous presidential election in 2008, Kreiss notes, was the influence of Twitter — which existed in 2008, but wasn’t really thought of as being an important tool for shaping public opinion. The Obama campaign’s digital director, Teddy Goff, said it was an afterthought at best:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Goff could not remember the word Twitter being mentioned in new media department meetings in April through November 2008 and says the campaign ‘probably had some intern paste whatever we were putting on Facebook’ on the platform.”[/blockquote]
The Twitter echo chamber
One of the conclusions of the paper is that Twitter in particular has turned what used to be a 24-hour news cycle — in which political operatives would try to spin the perception of news events for the next day’s newspaper or TV broadcast — into a two-hour news cycle that continually resets during a campaign, based on what the trending topics are on Twitter or what content is being shared on Facebook.
From a political and journalistic standpoint, one of the interesting conclusions that Kreiss comes to is that both campaigns took advantage of the fact that some journalists looked to Twitter as a sign of what average citizens were thinking about the election or the presidential debates, but in many ways what they found was the same thing that used to exist with traditional media: namely, a consensus formed in part by smart political spin, amplified by other journalists using the social platform.
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Staffers on both campaigns also cited that journalists used Twitter as a proxy for public opinion to assess such things as the candidates’ debate performances. Both campaigns worked to create a ‘climate of opinion’ favorable to their candidate to influence reporters’ perceptions of political events as they read social media as a measure of public sentiment.”[/blockquote]
As Derek Willis of the NYT’s Upshot pointed out in a post on the Kreiss research, clever tweets and pleas for support may momentarily influence actual voters to donate or take some other kind of action, but “the main audience for campaigns on Twitter is the people who write, talk and tweet about the campaigns for a living.” In other words, political reporters and their marketing counterparts within the campaigns themselves — the definition of an echo chamber.
So despite the focus on new technologies, whether social or mobile, the political and media landscape we have now isn’t really that different from the old days of newspaper editorials and columnists dictating the requirements of the news cycle — it’s just a lot faster than it used to be, and a lot more distributed. The only upside is that now we have thousands of potential outlets to choose from instead of just a few.