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PEJ on Obama and Romney's Use of the Web: Highly Controlled and Weakly Engaged

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, August 15 2012

The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), an arm of the Pew Research Center directed by Tom Rosenstiel, has a new report out on "How the Presidential Candidates Use the Web and Social Media." Let me save you some time, in case you just don't have the stamina for a 33-page report on the two campaigns' use of their website blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and the level of social media response that usage generated over a two week period in early June: Their use of these tools is highly controlled and generating a relatively weak response.

Here's how PEJ puts it:

In theory, digital technology allows leaders to engage in a new level of “conversation” with voters, transforming campaigning into something more dynamic, more of a dialogue, than it was in the 20th century. For the most part, however, the presidential candidates are using their direct messaging mainly as a way to push their messages out. Citizen content was only minimally present on Romney’s digital channels. The Obama campaign made more substantial use of citizen voices—but only in one area: the “news blog” on its website where that content could be completely controlled.

That is exactly right. Neither campaign is using the web and social media in a genuinely social way. The hope that two-way media would engender a two-way political conversation--which we saw start to flower in 2004 via blogs and then blossom in 2008 via social networks--is essentially dead for now. Instead, the campaigns are more focused on big data rather than big social. As PEJ notes, "Rarely did either candidate reply to, comment on, or “retweet” something from a citizen—or anyone else outside the campaign. On Twitter, 3% of the 404 Obama campaign tweets studied during the June period were retweets of citizen posts. Romney’s campaign produced just a single retweet during these two weeks—repeating something from his son Josh."

There's going to be a spate of articles about PEJ's report, judging from the number of advance calls we got from other outlets today asking for our comment on the embargoed advance copy that circulated yesterday. And I have a feeling a lot of those reports will be distracted by all the numerical evidence PEJ collected that shows Obama's huge lead over Romney in the online arena. The Obama campaign has public accounts on at least twice as many online platforms, where it is roughly four times as active in the amount of content it posts. And building on the huge base that it started growing in 2007-08, the Obama campaign has more than 27.6 million Facebook friends, 207,000 YouTube subscribers and over 18 million followers on Twitter, compared to Romney's 2.9 million on Facebook, 12,500 on YouTube and 787,000 on Twitter. These numbers are impressive, but more hollow than they appear.

Yes, Obama appears to have more people retweeting, commenting and "liking" his campaign content, but on a per capita basis the engagement is minuscule. For some reason, PEJ didn't bother to normalize the data to allow for more meaningful comparisons.

For example, the report notes that Obama posts on Facebook generated more than 1.1 million likes on Facebook during the two-week period studied, compared to 635,000 for Romney on Facebook. But given that Obama's Facebook following is roughly nine times bigger than Romney's it's hardly surprising he got more likes. What is genuinely surprising is that he didn't get nine times as many, but not even twice as many. (If you look further at how both men are doing currently on Facebook, you'll discover that while Romney now has 4.1 million "likes" there compared to Obama's 27.7 million, he actually has more people "talking about" him than Obama, 1.6 million to 1.3 million.)

On YouTube, Obama's videos generated twice as much attention (likes, dislikes and views) as Romney's, but again, with about 16 times as many subscribers, the question ought to be, why isn't Obama generating a much bigger response?

In fact, the weakness of both Obama and Romney on YouTube is one of the dogs-that-didn't-bark of 2012. During the period in June that PEJ studied, Obama's top video there, a "Father's Day Card From Michele to Barack," garnered 211,000 views. Romney's top video was an ad showing current unemployment numbers and criticizing Obama's "private sector doing fine" remark, which got 97,000. These are minuscule numbers for national presidential candidates, compared to 2008.

If you look back through Obama's YouTube channel, you'll find only eight videos from this cycle that have earned more than 1 million views (compared to 21 from before the 2012 race began. Given the size of his YouTube subscriber list, plus his much larger email list, you'd expect much higher numbers, that is, if people felt the content was compelling and worth sharing with others. As for Romney, he's only had one video top a million views, the "Doing Fine" missive noted by PEJ above as his most popular in early June. The chart below, from TubeMogul, shows some fairly healthy daily totals for the last month, but the overall pattern is still much lower than one would expect with such large followings on paper.

As I've written earlier, so far in 2012 we've been living through a widespread "voter tune-out from politics." There are lots of reasons for this, ranging from the Great Recession to the "twitterization" of campaign discourse to the uneasy sense that many people have that they've been locked out yet again from having a meaningful voice in the process. On that last front, this new report from PEJ offers fresh evidence that the campaigns themselves, with their highly controlled approach to social media, must take some responsibility for the decline in voter engagement. Perhaps now that the addition of Paul Ryan to the GOP ticket has added some clarity to the debate between both campaigns, we'll see some changes in the level of public involvement. But judging from everything that has transpired so far during this long slog of an election, I wouldn't hold my breath.

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