Ever since then-Senator Barack Obama managed to raise half a billion dollars online for his 2008 presidential campaign, politicians from both major parties have rushed to embrace social media and other digital tools — for fundraising, but also for voter outreach and, most important, for gathering as much information as possible on individual voters.
No campaign is complete these days without a Facebook page, a LinkedIn group, and a Twitter account, to say nothing of Android and iPhone apps and a battery of targeted web sites. This year’s edition of the Barack Obama presidential campaign, in fact, has been so aggressive in its data gathering and its use of social media that it has raised eyebrows among some privacy advocates. Though his rival Mitt Romney’s campaign has had a lower social media profile overall it too has pushed the envelope on data privacy.
With the parties’ respective presidential nominating conventions set to begin next week in Tampa, Fla. (barring a weather emergency) social media and digital platforms will be center stage, as traditional media outlets like the broadcast networks dramatically scale back their coverage.
Yet for all that, the real story of the 2012 election cycle could turn out not to be about politicians’ embrace of social media but social media platforms’ embrace of politics. In just the past few weeks:
- Twitter launched the Twitter Political Index, a daily tracking report on aggregate sentiment among Twitter users toward Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The index, created in partnership with big-data analytics firm Topsy, along with the polling firms The Mellman Group and North Star Opinion Research, sifts through 400 million daily tweets more mentions of the two candidates and the applies a variety of metrics to assign each candidate a daily score. In tests over the past two years, Twitter claimed in a recent blog post, President Obama’s daily score often paralleled his approval score in Gallup’s daily tracking poll, at times “even hinting at where the poll numbers are headed.”
- YouTube launched its 2012 Elections Hub, aggregating videos from the YouTube Politics channel as well as from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Univsion, Al Jazeera, ABC News and BuzzFeed. The hub will also host gavel-to-gavel live-stream coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions and the presidential and vice presidential debates in the fall.
- Facebook launched its I’m Voting app in conjunction with CNN. The app, built by Tenthwave Digital, lets Facebookers commit to voting, provide information on their views regarding issues in the election and share thoughts on the campaign with their friends. It will also serve as a second-screen app for CNN’s coverage of the conventions.
Apart from whatever impact those initiatives have on the current campaign, the efforts mark what could be a significant turning point in the relationship between the Silicon Valley-based technology industry and the Washington, DC-based political culture.
While the Valley has long been leery of Washington’s attention, as Microsoft discovered too late engagement with the regulatory apparatus can be far less taxing than ending up on the wrong end of an antitrust suit or other regulatory enforcement action. Google has engaged actively in Washington for the past several years but largely through traditional channels, such as direct lobbying and the use of political action committees to dole out campaign contributions. While Google has won some important legislative fights, its efforts haven’t always staved off trouble with regulators.
The newest efforts could hold more promise. Rather than acting simply as one voice among many asking for legislative favors or regulatory forbearance, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are providing tools that politicians can use in ways that benefit them politically, such as tracking public opinion, targeting potential donors and providing a platform for exposure — three of the surest ways to a politician’s heart. The more dependent candidates become on social media platforms, the harder it will be to cast them as villain.
The efforts could also prove highly lucrative at some point. As any local TV ad booker or polling firm can tell you, campaigns are big spenders, and the amount of money flowing into political campaigns these days is unprecedented. Should the Twitter Political Index prove to be accurate and sensitive enough, especially with respect to anticipating shifts in polled opinion, every campaign consultant in Washington and beyond will be clamoring for access to the Twitter fire hose and to the tools to analyze it.
Likewise, Facebook’s recent steps toward processing real-money credit card transactions could make it a powerful direct political fundraising platform while creating a new revenue stream for itself. And as YouTube acts more like a traditional media company in providing coverage of political campaigns and events, it could also become an important outlet for political advertising.
In the long run, being part of the game could prove both safer and more profitable than standing outside it.