social media & politics

How does social media impact political campaigns?

Powerful politicians are visible through directed media (print, radio, tv) but are not reciprocally accessible.  Social media is effective because it creates the illusion of a personal connection.  A text from Barack Obama lets you know that he just got a puppy for his daughters.

Social media can appear ‘apolitical’ because it seems personal.  It can therefore be more effective or insidious (depending on your perspective) as it appears to confuse our assessment of reciprocity.  Reciprocity we would normally consider an ‘honest signal’ and is one of the foundations of social trust.  Receiving what appears to be a personal message creates the false presumption that a choice to associate to Barack was reciprocated by his choice to associate back.  We would then replicate (re-tweet) to our friends and fb-friends as we know that information contains value and the bearer of important information is socially significant.  The same social mechanisms that we use to convey information of low value (say gossip) piggybacks on the social media technological platforms.

The use of social media for political mobilisation has to recognise the distinction between activism, which depends on strong social ties and campaigns that are typically weak tie events.  Twitter can influence someone in making a decision to go to a demonstration but it is the strength of their social ties to other protesters that will determine if they will camp-out overnight on Wall Street.  In other words you may be targeted for a tweet through an anti-capitalist blog but it is the strength of your social ties with other activists that will determine if you will take actions that entail costs.  The bottom line is that political marketing can utilise the viral nature of social media to ride a wave of activism or public concern but it cannot engineer it on its own.

There is lack of any strong evidence that social media are instrumental in the organisation of protest events.  Facebook posts resulted in prosecutions rather than any noticeable impact on the 2011 English riots.  The blogosphere and social media in the Ukranian Orange revolution was dominated by state controlled content.  And events in Iran or Egypt are more directly associated to the use of direct communications (mobile phone texts) than new technologies.

Social media, have the capacity to convey information that may have higher impact, if it comes from ‘friends’ we ‘trust’.  It can reach unprecedented dissemination scale, if successful.  But its effectiveness depends on accurate dissemination targeting.  This implies comprehensive understanding of the structure of virtual and real social networks.  And of course an understanding of the value and salience of a specific political message.

Resources dedicated to social media political campaigns are contingent on the volatility of political contest and the fluidity of the political agenda.  It is also determined by what others do.  I like sailing metaphors.  If the leader in the polls tacks to a heavy use of social media the low risk strategy is to follow.

My judgement is that social media campaigns can make a difference to political contests that are volatile.  It can introduce items on the political agenda through a new route, where it is difficult for political actors to estimate the level of resonance of an issue with their constituents.  Are a 10000 twits a gauge of vox populi or the viral utilisation of a single voter’s personal network?  Or indeed the clever use of bots?

Collaboration with Arno Scharl (MODUL University) on content analysis.

Collaboration with Juergen Pfeffer (Carnegie Mellon) on a natural experiment on Twitter campaigns.


My presentation notes @ Scottish Parliament 12 June 2012

Presentation at the NCSL Leadership Symposium, Scottish Parliament, 12 July 2013.

My interview with the Scottish Parliament TV in 2012.

A nice article by Tavish Scott MSP in the Scotsman & one by Simon Thomas AM in Wales Online in 2012.

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