The Politics of Tweeting
How do social networking sites affect political trends?
With the political season going into full swing, social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with discussion about the upcoming election. Just how much of a role do these sites play in our political lives? For some voters more than others, SNS do matter, says a new study from Pew Research.
About one-quarter of users appreciate SNS for the opportunity to debate and discuss political issues, while one-quarter uses them to recruit people to get involved in causes, and the same number also enjoys using SNS to find like-minded political allies.
More than a third of SNS users (36 percent) use SNS to stay current with political news.
Overall, Pew reports, SNS users who identify as Democrats are more likely than Republicans or Independents to say these sites are important. SNS-using blacks are more likely than SNS-using whites to say that these sites are important for political activities, the poll notes, as are younger SNS users—those aged 18 to 29—than older SNS users.
Despite results indicating that some demographic segments seemingly more affected by SNS than others, social networking sites have influenced one-quarter of their users to become more active in a political cause, reports Pew, and 16 percent of users say that they have changed their views about a political issue as a result of information gleaned from social networking.
Liberals and Democrats are more likely than other groups to say that SNS activity has influenced them to become more politically active; more than one-third of the former versus about one-quarter of Republicans and Independents make this claim. Thirty-nine percent of SNS-using liberals state that they have gotten more involved in an issue thanks to these sites, while about one-quarter of conservatives and one in five moderates say the same.
Social media sites are today’s grassroots campaign tools, Sean D. Foreman, PhD, associate professor of political science at FL-based Barry University, explains.
“They provide cheap and quick ways to communicate with scores of people and to do it in real time,” he maintains. “It is not just for younger people anymore. You can save some of the costs of printing and postage and you can send multiple messages rather effortlessly. It allows you to keep in constant contact with supporters and try to reach into their networks of friends.”
Does a strong online presence ensure greater success at the polls for computer-savvy politicians? Not necessarily, Foreman says. Old-fashioned offline legwork is still required to win an election.
“All of this extra contact does not necessarily translate into votes,” he explains. “Candidates still need to add the personal touch by walking the neighborhoods and attending community meetings to speak with potential voters.”
Despite the poll results and the popular notion that young people are more involved in SNS, Foreman says that online communication is becoming more widespread across age groups.
“Younger people started the trend of social media but people of all ages are catching on,” he says. “Many age groups are becoming digitally literate and using sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to connect to their contacts, whether they be personal, political, or professional.”
In terms of the current election, past success using social media has taught campaign teams valuable lessons about how to best reach voters. While the 2008 Obama campaign ruled in use of social media, employing the power of text messages and YouTube videos, proving effective with younger voters, McCain’s team did not.
“The McCain camp did not embrace social media in the same way although Sarah Palin and her supporters did,” Foreman explains. “This year the Romney folks realize that they need to compete in the digital world with the Obama team and so you see both sides fully invested in the use of social media.”
Obama and Romney are not the only politicians that will gain from utilizing the best that SNS has to offer. Campaigns at all political levels use SNS to gain ground at election time.
“It is essential for a candidate to have a web site, a Facebook page and a Twitter account lest they appear to be out of touch with today’s society,” Foreman advises.
Although voters who strongly identify with a particular party may be inflexible, social media is powerful tool for politicians who seek to strengthen support among voters and creates awareness for voters who may be on the fence.
“What you are trying to do as a candidate or campaign manager by using social media is to get your name out there and to try to rally your supporters rather than really trying to change people’s minds,” Foreman explains.
Social networking site users who engage often in offline political discussions with their families and friends are more likely to do so online as well, Pew notes. Although people rarely change their minds as a result of online discussions and debates, the practice is still valuable, Foreman contends.“Reading posts or engaging in debates on Facebook or Twitter may not change people’s minds but it does help to promote civic dialogue,” he says. “Many people use their specific ideological lenses when surfing and selecting content. In many ways it helps to reinforce old ideas rather than stimulate new ones among loyal Democrats or Republicans.”
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