Facebook and Twitter: The Real Swing States in 2012
As the presidential election approaches in November, many are wondering how social media will impact voter registration and the final outcome.
This current presidential election cycle, the economy, jobs and taxes have taken center stage, but opinions only matter if voters head to the polls, and that potential increases as others join in. In this light, the issue of voter registration is getting renewed attention, as all sides use social media to rally supporters, spread the word and turn the tide in their favor.
The election outcome will likely be close, and while political pundits are racing to proclaim which state will be the swing state, political operatives are taking an unconventional view of the political landscape and using a measure beyond geographical borders. These analysts say it won't be a "state" -- one ruled by a governor and bordered by rivers or lines on a map -- that tips the scales, but the newly created "social media state" that will decide the winner. And Facebook and Twitter have been bombarded with messages that support specific candidates and endorse specific stances.
Long viewed as a way to democratize society, social media is under pressure to deliver on these high expectations, and it has an opportunity to show that by increasing voter registration. In this election cycle, they'll become a force to be reckoned with, especially considering the sheer numbers. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+ and Tumblr are everywhere, and nearly everyone is on at least one of these platforms, so each campaign's ability to capitalize on these growing numbers will be critical to these voting initiatives.
But, as advertisers and the social networks themselves are finding out, the numbers don't always translate to an active audience. So, the question isn't really about social media's established reach, but more about its results: how can social media can entice, engage and deliver voters on the political front?
The ways these sites respond to the election challenge will likely serve as a model for what works and what doesn't for other industries looking to crack the social media potential.
Voting Isn't as Simple as You Think
Voting is many things -- a civic right, contemplating of a dizzying number of candidates and issues, something to try to squeeze in on that first Tuesday in November, to name a few. But it is also a process, which requires voters to register before heading into the election booth, spurring initiatives like National Voter Registration Day, a broad-based nonpartisan effort that is using the power and reach of the Internet to encourage registration in time for the election.
According to the coalition, six million Americans didn't vote in 2008 because they didn't know how to register or missed a deadline, and about a quarter of U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote aren't registered. State deadlines vary widely, but would-be voters can easily start the process online.
In some states, like Washington, the registration process can be done online, but in most states, after filling out the information on the National Voter Registration Day website, you'll need to print out a form, sign it and mail it in.
"If you are registered to vote, the best thing you can do is share it on social media," Dan McSwain, a spokesman for the coalition of more than 1,000 groups, said. "We're asking everyone to share this as much as possible," and they are offering a Twitter hashtag, #925nvrd, a Facebook page and a Google Hangout as places for the conversation.
Social media is good at starting or even continuing a conversation, but its mettle will be tested on how it is able to make the next leap -- to actually motivating the participants to turn slacktivism into activism and move beyond passively clicking support and getting out there and doing something.
Facebook Debuts Voting Life Event
Coinciding with other initiatives to increase voter participation, Facebook added a new politics-focused choice feature to its "life events" selection to alert friends and family about your voter registration activity.
Facebook provides details on its Politics page, asserting the feature allows users to not only add to their timeline that they registered to vote but to help "share your story about when, where or why you decided to register." To add this life event to your timeline, users click "Life Event," then select "Travel & Experiences" and "Registered to Vote." From there, you select the date and U.S. state where you registered and share your story.
The idea is to urge registration and prompt people to tell their voting story. For example, you could take a picture of yourself with your voter registration application or wearing an 'I'm registered' sticker, and post it on Facebook or Twitter to share your action and encourage your friends to register themselves.
Facebook's "Register to Vote" program comes on the heels of the Facebook-CNN "I'm Voting" app, which operates in much the same way: as a way for people commit to vote and express their candidate and issue choices, to create a more informed citizenry ahead of Election Day.
Campaigns Turn-up Social Media Heat
The tech industry is offering tools to increase voter awareness, but candidates and their campaigns are pushing the social media envelope to maximize its ability to share persuasive messages from trusted friends to mobilize their base and entice undecideds to vote for them.
Both the Romney and Obama campaign are employing a range of digital tools in their campaigns. They realize they can organize and rally supports with apps and social media, often using their supporters "likes" and other online activity to craft specific messages.
In addition to Facebook's efforts, political organizations are creating ever-more sophisticated digital programs to reach out and persuade you to support their candidate or cause. Beyond hearing from a neighbor who is using Facebook's Timeline feature to share their registration, voters who live in states considered "in play," like Ohio or Florida, may hear from an old college friend who registered to vote and who wants to share a message with you.
In this way, the campaigns can compile information on a swath of American voters, who didn't necessarily take any direct action to share it. And, the campaigns don't need to motivate a high percentage them to action to succeed. In 2000, the contested election that put George W. Bush in office was determined largely by 537 out of six million votes in Florida, and in 2004, the incumbent Bush beat John Kerry by fewer than 120,000 people out of 5.6 million who voted in Ohio.
But Will it Work?
The real test of social media's impact will show if these messages and stories result in a more involved electorate at the polling stations. Facebook's political feature doesn't cut the need to actually register -- rather it provides a place for information and sharing. In most cases, a person has to take the next step and complete their state's registration process. And, like many things on Facebook, there isn't a way to verify that information, meaning this feature can be used by people who never even registered to vote.
Analysts, hoping for a smaller sampling of data to review post-election results, will start with registration data from states with online registration -- like Washington -- to see just how effective social media is at creating voter awareness and action. A review may also uncover security issues or voting inconsistencies, which may slow broader adoption of using the Internet as a voting tool.
Still, there is potential in these online initiatives. Facebook's voter registration tool is similar to the social network's organ donation feature. Shortly after Facebook debuted the program earlier this year, the Donate Life California organization reported a big upswing in interested registrants. The same may hold true in the political arena.
For campaigns, the issue is clear: targeting messages to friends on social media is a crucial element in voter turn-out, right up there with and possibly surpassing direct mailings, landline phone calls and television advertising. But while it's a certainty you'll see more Facebook and Twitter activity, what is less certain is how it will affect your actions. Meanwhile, campaigns are betting that a message from a friend will have that extra oomph to convince you to not only see it their way, but make it a reality. ♦
Categories: News Desk | Social Media