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The Rise and Fall of Social Media in American Politics (And How it May Rise Again)

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, November 6 2012

Four years ago for us here techPresident, Election Day was a moment to reflect on the Internet's impact on the campaign, and in particular how so many voters had ventured onto the playing field of politics by using new interactive media, self-publishing tools like blogs and YouTube, and nascent social networks like Facebook. We tallied those metrics with excitement, and by November 4, 2008, we thought they were astounding. Barack Obama had 2,397,253 friends on Facebook to John McCain's 622,860. He had 125,639 Twitter followers to McCain's 5,319. There were 79,613 blog posts using the phrase "voting for Obama" compared to 42,093 saying "voting for McCain." And these benchmarks were signifiers of a mass movement that involved millions of people in participating in the election in a whole new way--not just on behalf of Obama, but on behalf of their own interests and causes.

But if you've spent any time reading techPresident this cycle, you've noticed that we've more or less stopped paying close attention to social media metrics. The fact that Obama had a little over 31,189, 517 million "likes" on Facebook as of today or that Romney had 12,109,852 is just something we're recording for future Ph.D. students to ponder, not anything we think is worth hyping. (For the record, on Twitter, it's 21,907,817 and 1.736,204 respectively.)

The reason we stopped tracking these numbers is also why we never got very exercised by the campaigns' pages on new platforms like Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram or Spotify, and why we took a critical view of the Facebook "townhalls," Google "hangouts," Twitter "chats," and YouTube "ask the candidate" pages that popped up in 2012. Not one of these things had any real effect on the course of the election or caused the campaigns to engage the voters in any but the most superficial ways. Social media just didn't matter in 2012, except as a new form of passing entertainment. Look! "Horses and bayonets" got the most mentions on Twitter during the third debate! Someone's "Binders full of women" Tumblr went viral! (Okay, we did get a tad excited by Obama's AMA on Reddit, but that was because unlike all these other online hubs, Reddit has a great deal of the chaotic and democratic energy that makes the Internet such an interesting place.)

In 2008, voter-generated content on social media altered the trajectory of the campaign several times. There were several breakout movements that came from the internet: Think of the "Million Strong for Barack" or "Million Strong Against Hillary Clinton" groups on Facebook, which really did gather that many supporters and operated outside the control of the campaigns. Or think of Phil de Vellis's "Vote Different" YouTube video that disrupted Hillary Clinton early push in 2007, or the "Dear Mr. Obama" video from a wounded Iraq veteran whose pro-McCain message garnered more than 10 million views late in 2008. Or the 20,000-strong "Get FISA Right" protest group on, which actually forced the candidate to respond to direct criticism and put the issue into the mainstream media. (I'd link to the group's page on MyBO, but of course it's been wiped clean.)

This cycle, the breakout moments for social media-powered movements didn't really happen, and it's worth asking why. It's not as if social media is a fad that just died down. As the Pew Internet & American Life Project just reported last month, nearly 40% of all American adults say they have used sites like Facebook and Twitter to post about issues, link to political content, attempt to influence others, join political groups, or follow politicians. Two-thirds of people under the age of 29 say they've done at least one of these things in 2012. These numbers are roughly double what they were four years ago.

One reason could be simply that in a bigger ocean it's harder to make a ripple. As we noted, by August there had been more than two billions views of videos mentioning Obama or any of the Republican presidential candidates, and only five percent of those views were for official videos made by their campaigns.

A second reason is obviously this was a different election with different candidates and a different context. Neither Obama or Romney was a fresh face for 2012, Obama being the incumbent and Romney a man who has essentially been running for president for seven years straight. Surveys showed that voter enthusiasm was down compared to 2008, especially among younger people who are the seedbed for so many political movements, online or off. Political movements need a sense of urgency and romance; this cycle support for Obama or Romney looked like a job, not an adventure.

A third reason is more complicated. The campaigns and the tech platforms alike learned something between 2008 and 2012, which is how to channel online social media to their own advantage. The campaigns discovered that if they "flooded the zone" with their own content, they made it harder for voter-generated content to gain attention. They also realized there were potential benefits to be tapped from all the "big data" they could collect from social media usage, the better to target their efforts to mobilize and persuade voters. And the platform providers effectively threw in with the campaigns, choosing to create highly controlled online events that politicians might feel comfortable embracing rather than making fuller use of all the interactive capabilities of the web. Both sides benefited: the politicians got a little "Internet buzz" for their appearances, and the tech companies got some welcome and cheap marketing. And with a few exceptions, the political reporters who cover the election campaigns went merrily along for the ride.

In truth, the most interesting uses of social media in this election cycle were not directly focused on the presidential campaigns, but outside them. First with the Tea Party and Ron Paul movements, and then later with Occupy Wall Street, we saw that when ordinary Americans want to, they can use these tools to make powerful cause with each other. As this election comes to a merciful end (please, let it be over!), my prediction is that we're about to see another wave of outside-the-establishment online organizing take off. Some of this will be led by a rested and ready climate change movement, which sees Superstorm Sandy as a critical wake-up call. And some will only take shape once we know who has won and who has lost all of today's contests. Peer-to-peer political organizing didn't stop during the 2012 election; it just didn't matter much. That is about to change.