Can social networks increase our involvement in the political process beyond clicking the ‘like’ button?
Politics and social media have finally made a connection. Yet, the level of understanding and usage of social media varies from person to person. The public, politicians and governmental entities are trying to grasp how to use social media while simultaneously learning how to use it effectively as the technology is constantly changing. It makes for a daunting task for those interested in using social media to increase engagement.
The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC held a panel on June 28, 2011 to discuss the impact of social networks on the public’s interest and involvement in governance.
The panelists for “How Social Networking Can Reinvigorate American Democracy and Civic Participation” were Mindy Finn, Partner at the Engage, a firm that provides advice about online technology. She also directed Mitt Romney’s digital and online operations during his 2008 presidential campaign; Diana Owen, Social Professor of Political Science and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University; Macon Phillips, Special Assistant to President Barack Obama and Director of Digital Strategy for the White House and Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which surveys the effect of technology on our socioeconomic lives.
Though the topic was social media and how it can increase civic engagement the panelists found themselves discussing how social media can be utilized and utilized better when it comes the public’s level of civic engagement.
Social Media Post-2008
Social networking has come quite a way in a relatively short period of time. Prior to 2008 older and newer social networking sites such as Friendster, MySpace and Facebook were seen primarily as tools for the young in which they talked to their friends, shared music and posted photos.
Then social networking stepped into another realm with its use by the Obama campaign and the rise of Facebook. Obama’s campaign heavily used Twitter, Facebook and their website to keep voters abreast of their campaign stops, political stances and scheduled rallies.
Other presidential candidates such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), former Sen. John Edwards (D-SC) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did the same, but not with a similar level of effectiveness. Obama’s use of social media became the benchmark for how politicians could successfully connect with the public.
After the election, hundreds of local, state and Congressional politicians set-up a website, Facebook or Twitter account. Government agencies took steps to become a part of the social networking arena. The White House’s website became chockful of information about President Obama’s schedule and the Administration’s agenda, information that had been never readily available and with such detail. Earlier this week, the Obama Administration announced that President Obama would start tweeting via the White House’s official Twitter account.
However, does the fact that local, state and federal government have become social media users mean that they have connected successfully with the American public?
Politicians, the Public and Social Media
Macon Phillips stated that though the White House has primarily used its website to communicate with the public it wants to create a “more robust web program.”
Phillips said that the White House uses Twitter and Facebook, but that they have started to include LinkedIn as part of their social media work.
“We’ve done some real interesting work with [LinkedIn],” Phillips said, adding that “We try to look at all those communities where we actually wanted to find people where they were . . . their expertise in order to reach them more directly.” Phillips also stated that his office has also looked into Quora and other new sites, which seem “very compelling and full of experts.”
Mindy Finn saw social media as a way to get the public more civically involved at the grassroots level. Finn said that social media’ impact on politics has had a “revolutionary effect.” She cited the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as places where social media has played a major role in politics in those countries. Finn said that if campaigns can “do social media right it should be the central nervous system of the campaign.”
“Political campaigns are about people . . . it’s about connecting people and forming relationships with people, and that’s what social media is all about,” said Finn.
However, Finn said that politicians still campaign the old way in that they spend most of their time with those who can contribute the big money, “reserving the end of their campaign to try to meet some voters . . . person to person.”
Social Networking and Governance
Social media has also had an impact on the way the public receives their political news and participates in the political process. Finn stated that though social media has been beneficial there remains the perceived threat that “use of social media [is] a distraction” in that it “pulls people away from real friendships and their communities.” Lee Rainie said Pew’s report Social Networking and Our Lives shows that has not been the case.
“People particularly who use Facebook have more friends, more close friends, more likely to be involved in politics, more likely to be open to diverse points of views,’ said Rainie. He also said that usage of social media has continued to grow, as “twenty-two percent of internet users used social media in one way, shape or form in the 2010 election.”
Diana Owen said that there has been a correlation between social media usage and “election purposes.” In Georgetown University’ s Government in Politics in the Information Age, Owen said their report showed that “taking a civics course . . . greatly increases the probability that a person will use social media at least for election purposes.”
What Owen found interesting was that the incorporation of social media into civics education appeared to have an impact on civic engagement. Owens also said that sixty-seven percent of those whose civic courses integrated social media were “engaged in the 2008 campaign.”
Rainie agreed that civics education could add to a person’s comfortability level when using social media for their political activities. Raine said that the Pew study found that almost twenty-three percent of Americans “had tried to convince someone to vote for a specific candidate . . . and that ten percent had attended a political rally.”
The panelists seemed to agree that the public’s use of social media to post their thoughts, ideas or news within their network or community can be an effective form of political activism.
Social Media and Reviving American Democracy
When asked what could social media do to improve participation in campaigns and “reinvigorate American Democracy,” the panelists mentioned how social media needed to be more a part of the political and news conversation.
Finn said that campaigns will need to accept that they must be “decentralized” in that the flow of information should come from the people and their social networks – not directly from the campaigns themselves.
Phillips has been fascinated by how social media content is currated – gathered and distributed. He said that “people are looking at stuff for alerts, they’re waiting for stuff to use to broadcast on their own vehicles.” Phillps also noted how American policy officials have conversed with large groups of people by way of Facebook chats.
Rainie noted that in the Pew Study twenty-two percent of Facebook users submit a comment on someone else’s post during a typical day; twenty percent comment on someone else’s photo and forty-four percent of social media users claim to update their status at least once a week.
Finn said that the use of social media combined with a very fast news cycle meant that politicians and the government must find new ways to provide information online for its constituents as quickly as possible.
Owen stated that in 2008 Facebook was the social media darling when it came to civic engagement; in 2010 it was Twitter. She said that because “we’re having a greater fragmentation of the platforms that people use for social media to access campaigns” that it is still hard to predict what will be the next big thing to reinvigorate the public when it comes to their political interactions.
2012 Elections and Social Media
Phillips was hesitant to discuss his thoughts given his position and the fact that President Obama is running for re-election. However, he did mention that his office remains interested in making more use of LinkedIn. He said that LinkedIn’s data “is very professionally-organized” and that it gets “looked over a lot.” He also said that Twitter will be used a lot more beyond tweeting White House announcements.
As evidenced by the fact that in the 2010 election over twenty-six percent of the American population have mobile phones is a sign that that mobile apps will play a bigger part in the upcoming presidential election said Rainie, he added that “All of the metrics of [how the public] uses social media are going up . . . the Internet is just going to become more and more important part of the campaign.”
Finn believed that new journalists with print and digital experience will play a significant part in the election cycle. She said that their ability to “determine good versus bad facts will be more important than ever,” especially since “having a good story is now less important than breaking news.”
Also, new journalists “must participate in social media” said Finn. They must think of different platforms to promote their story in the social media era. Finn said that new journalists must be “active social media participants” in that they make regular use of their Facebook and Twitter accounts not to only “post info but also engage with their followers, fans and those in their social network community.”
Owen said that in 2012 that those with the social media resources will continue to be the “social networking innovators” in that that they will have the most influence. Though you still hear about the digital divide being about race, Owen said that socioeconmic status mostly determines a person’s social network involvement. “Users of social media are not as diverse as we would like them to be,” said Owen. She also said that class and education status will play a role in the 2012 election and subsequent elections when it comes to social media.
Social media continues to play a significant part in the public’s political discussions and actions. Yet, does a tweet constitute civic engagement? Does becoming a fan of a politician’s page proves that a voter is paying attention to that politician’s activities?
The panelists seemed to believe that social media can be used to reignite the public’s interest in campaigns, elections and civics education. However, their answers didn’t seem to go beyond what has already been addressed about how social media can empower its citizenry and what tools would best serve this purpose . Maybe this is because many of us are still learning how to use social media, let alone how to use it effectively in the political/governmental arena. Its ability to mobilize citizens to become full-fledged participants in the American democratic process has yet to be determined.
(For complete discussion, see How Social Networking Can Reinvigorate American Democracy and Civic Participation)