"You are on 24/7": The promise -- and peril -- of campaigning in the age of social media

Politicians have only begun to grasp social media's power, political scientist Victoria Farrar-Myers tells Salon

By Elias Isquith
Published April 22, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)
Rand Paul                   (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Rand Paul (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

When Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (or, more often, one of his flacks) is trying to persuade a reporter or party activist that, as a presidential candidate, he'll appeal to young voters who traditionally shun the GOP, he often cites his familiarity with social media. At times, in fact, it seems as if Paul and his team think the senator's ability to use the phrase "social media" without evident discomfort will be enough to make millennials swoon. (My favorite example is when Paul tried to make his joining Snapchat a big event.)

But here's the thing about social media and politics that Paul either ignores or doesn't understand: Every candidate is doing it. Indeed, as is shown by "Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns," a new edited collection from the University of Texas at Arlington's Victoria Farrar-Myers and Boise State University's Justin Vaughn, social media has already become an integral part of every serious U.S. political campaign. If you're running for office, the question no longer is whether you use social media; the question is, do you use it well?

Recently, Salon spoke with Professor Farrar-Myers over the phone about the pieces she and Vaughn chose to highlight as well as the present and future implications of what political scientists have learned about social media and campaigning thus far. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

Is the field of political science starting to take social media more seriously?

I think in general, communication scholars have been out in front on this particular question for a while now. As political scientists, one of the reasons why this book came together is because there was a real question about the changing notion of a campaign. As you can tell by the book title, "Controlling the Message," the real question was, what does this new environment do for the ability of candidates to craft a campaign message? Does this new media democratize the process? Does it have the negative potentiality— externality, I should say— of taking control of the message from the candidate and giving it more to the voters or the public at large? We really were motivated in two directions, by seeing whether ways in which campaigns are structured are changing, and then by seeing whether these tools matter or if they're just new bells and whistles like TV was.

What have people seen so far in terms of whether social media is changing the balance of power? 

Our book takes a multi-method approach, and myself and my co-editor chose particularly to do our research in real time during the 2012 presidential election. The writers of the pieces in the book did research on the various different types of social media tools with a particular aim of trying to understand whether, say, Twitter matters more than YouTube or whether there's more commentary out there or whether the nature and the type of people who use these media are inherently different. In other words, instead of just having the attentive public, are we getting some mass public participation? What was interesting, I think, in all of the pieces, whether you're studying Twitter or YouTube or just general social media commentary on various mainstream news articles, what you're seeing is a couple of things. One, you're seeing selectivity bias — there's still a media selectivity bias. In other words, if I'm already conservative or already liberal, I tend to go to those news sources or I tend to gravitate toward  the people who have the same kinds of interests as I do. I would retweet those or I'd be more likely to follow those or to tag those. You do see reification; instead of opening up the forum and giving people different ways of looking at things, you're actually seeing people close themselves down to selectivity bias.

The second thing that was interesting to see was the ways in which engagement happens. 2012 was considered the Twitter campaign, right? Everything in 140 characters or less. One of the the things that was interesting to look at from a campaign standpoint is that these are seen as different tools that are necessary in order to conduct a modern campaign. There was a lot of emphasis on using Twitter for outreach and to gain supporters. What you don't necessarily do is motivate the inattentive public, which one would hope to or want to expect to do that. One area where that's not the case is campaign finance. We did see in 2012 and a bit in 2008 that Internet fundraising from small donors increased, and you saw crowdsourcing increase. One of the nice things is that if you raise funds via the Internet, you can automatically use those funds; there's not a waiting period on that. In some senses, this is sort of a mixed picture. You have this reification of the staunch partisans using this as a way to amplify their existing message, but on the other hand, you see that there's this expectation that modern campaigns must make use of these tools in order to be seen as modern.

Did you discover or learn anything that surprised or concerned you?

You're seeing this real pressure on campaigns to gather all this data, and the real question here, I think, that is not fully addressed by our edited volume but is something we raise and really want to get deeper into as political scientists is, when we get all this data, what happens to it? A lot of the data that's collected is held by private corporations; Obama used, for example, a lot of Silicon Valley developers who agreed to develop most of these things on shareware platforms, but immediately after the election the DNC stepped in and said, no, we want those. A lot of those data sets still exist, they're out there, but they exist in private corporations' hands. I think that raises a different notion about what data means. It used to be that campaigns would stand up, they'd run, and when they were done everything would go away— voter lists would go away, data would go away— but now we have an opportunity for campaigns to have institutional memory. The real question, then, is how that data is used. There's a mixed set of really interesting questions that are opened by this study but that also lead us in directions we might not have expected.

Do we have a sense yet of a standard operating procedure or best practices for social media usage in campaigns?

I think you'd be hard-pressed to run a campaign now without having the ability to use social media in an effective way. If you look at campaign structures as you see some of the 2016 candidates standing up, you're seeing a whole social media section of data analysts who are doing nothing but analyzing data on targeting voters, right down to the products they have. You have a whole section of people who do nothing but website development, down to things like green screens versus blue screens and how three clicks works better than five clicks to get people to donate and how much information to provide, and developing a website with the most important things in the left upper quadrant and the right lower quadrant. I think people would totally judge a campaign that did not have a YouTube channel or Facebook or Twitter or some way to interact with it. You saw a little of that pushback in 2012 on Romney when he was unable to catch up really quickly with his own data usage, and that shows us the hazards of social media and this voracity of need for information and the fact that information can get out from anywhere, even a person with a phone sitting inside a fundraiser where you thought everybody was a friend. I think you're seeing this notion that you have to have social media, but it's also something that needs to be tamed.

Do you think there's any reason that voters might come to resent how campaigns are collecting and using data through social media?

I think there could be. The most obvious way is just voters tuning out, because there's just more white noise. It's like the saturation of TV ads we're seeing in swing states, where every five minutes you see an ad. You just turn off the TV, right? You see a lot of people disengage after a while. Being a political scientist, I was following everybody's Twitter account, everybody's feed, and I was just getting inundated with things. What was interesting to me was that I'm a mother and, obviously, a woman, and I started to get things that were tailored for women and for mothers. That made me wonder, Hmm, they're obviously collecting cookies from my behavior online to know more about me, and that's a question of privacy. A number of people are very concerned about the data that's not only being captured but also the fact that corporations that are now standing themselves up and offering these services to campaigns now have proprietary rights and the campaign no longer owns that information. I think that makes people very nervous, because there's somebody out there who's already got this information collected in a nice, neat database.

It's obviously very early, but from what you've seen so far of the 2016 candidates, who do you feel is using social media the best or the worst? Or is everyone just doing what you'd expect?

I think best practices have set in. It is premature to ask that because we only really have three candidates who have affirmatively said, I'm running for the presidency, and the rest of them are still in the exploratory stage. You don't even see the full campaign staff developed yet, but even in the embryonic stages of all those three that have announced and then the others that are sort of just dipping their toe in the water, you're already seeing heavy use of social media. You're seeing releases of videos on the Democratic side, you're seeing policy papers and videos and blogs being used by Republican candidates ... Again, I think you really are seeing that social media is here to stay as part of the notion of a modern campaign. The question going forward is, is it just another tool in the arsenal, just like TV is required in some ways?

The question I have as a scholar is, is it going to make a difference in the outcome of an actual election or what voters are actually reached? Are we going to expand the voter base? Are we going to get deeper into the mass public who don't usually pay attention to these things? Are we going to give them information that they couldn't get before? One nice thing about social media is that it is at your fingertips, so if you want to know something it's there. Then again, there's that negative side of social media — which all the candidates going into 2016 know — which is that just as much as it can be a positive assistance to you, you are on 24/7 and any comment, anywhere, anytime can be potentially used against you. I think it changes the speed of campaigning as well, which really puts pressure on the candidate.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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