The Future of Social Media and Politics
Representative democracy seems the perfect place for social media — a direct communications channel between the governed and the government. But are we headed toward a more interconnected body politic, or a new sea of unmanageable political noise?
With the U.S. midterm elections in their final throes, we spoke to some key players for their views on what the rise of mainstream social media has in store for the next generation of political campaigns.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, But Perhaps Tweeted
The medium is the message, and like television before it, the social web will radically alter who is electable, according to Matt Lira, the director of new media for Republican Whip Eric Cantor. “Before television, there was a dramatically different set of candidates who could win that didn’t have a chance once television emerged,” Lira said. “Social media’s effect will be no less dramatic.”
Lira notes that at first, campaigning on TV was viewed as a gimmick and was given to young staffers to experiment with. “Over time, television asserted itself as the dominant form of political communication — remaking our nation’s politics in the process.” If that progression sounds familiar, it’s because we’re reliving it today.
It’s about how the social web is rapidly becoming the default place where people spend their time and discuss issues that matter to them. “It will be about how much society has integrated itself into it,” saidGerrit Lansing, the new media director for Congressman Peter Roskam (R-IL 6th). “Citizens will be far more accustomed to being a fan of their Congressman on Facebook, because it will soon become one of the main ways in which they communicate with him.”
“What we’re seeing across the political spectrum right now is a rejection of traditional media,” said A.J. Bhadelia, the online communications coordinator for Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA 15th), who represents the Silicon Valley district in California. He notes that among Rep. Honda’s constituents, a quarter of the people who get their news online get it from social media. “[I]f given the opportunity, it will take up any space that traditional media has conceded.”
The New Grassroots
Like many publishers and businesses, political media relations are still entrenched in a “one-way announcement or press release communication” style, as Bhadelia puts it. But today’s forward-thinking campaigns offer a glimpse into what political activism might look like a few years on.
“Future candidates who ‘get it’ will be conducting increasingly supporter-centric campaigns that put the needs of the candidates’ most enthusiastic and ardent supporters at the center of the campaign,” said Brian Komar, the director of strategic outreach for the Center for American Progress. As social media trust continues to shift away from organizations and toward individuals, a highly social political campaign can decentralize its message and create what successful marketers have been tapping on the web for some time — brand ambassadors.
Komar told us that since experts are generally more trusted than institutions, a key component of their outreach has been to train staffers to be individuals with a message, rather than representatives of a large organization. “We’ve had considerable success with this decentralized approach, ranging from tweets being picked up directly by major press outlets to tweets being forwarded by influencers to high-ranking White House officials, to enhancing various policy experts’ reputations.”
Essentially, we may be looking at political outreach coming full circle over the course of a few generations. Focus was initially on personal grassroots activism, then on mass media, and is now returning to a one-on-one trust model for the digital age.
Socially Connected Legislation
The ancient Greeks probably would have dug social media for its potential to realize direct democracy. But can millions of people updating, tweeting and texting really generate a vox populi worth a Senator’s attention?
“I believe that social media must be fully incorporated into the daily operation of the United States Congress,” said Lira. “Not simply as an outbound communication tool, but to actually include the American public in substantive legislative decision making.”
Lira cites one digital democracy experiment led by House Republicans called YouCut, a social media hub where participants can suggest and vote on which government spending programs should be cut from the Federal budget.
“For the first time, the public is able to have direct impact on what their representatives vote upon on the House floor,” said Lira about the YouCut initiative. “The public’s response to this program validates that they will engage with Congress when given the opportunity to do so.”
Lira said that over two million votes have been cast on the YouCut website so far, and every week that the House is in session, the item that receives the most social media votes is brought to the floor for debate (typically 45 minutes) and an actual legislative vote. “To date, no cuts have passed the House, but all we can do in the minority is force the debate and the vote,” said Lira. “The full voting records are available online, so people can know where their representative stood.”
Komar cites another success for connected legislation in a recent campaign by the Enough Project. The organization pushed for regulation on the U.S. import of conflict minerals (tin, tungsten and tantalum, which are commonly used in electronics) from eastern Congo, where mining operations for these valuable materials are often used to fund violent and genocidal military groups. Ten members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee were targeted by the Enough Project and their supporters.
“Within 48 hours, about 500 people posted on the Facebook walls of these members. Soon after, two of the ten members agreed to co-sponsor the bill and another three members of the committee who were not targeted also agreed to co-sponsor,” said Komar. “The committee’s chairman, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), then took the unanticipated step to not just put the conflict minerals bill up for a vote, but also put a second bill that the Enough Project was pushing, up for a vote, too.” Both bills passed unanimously out of committee.
Both YouCut and the conflict minerals bill serve to illustrate that legislators can cut through the social media noise the same way many businesses do — by listening to and tackling the issues raised by small, focused online communities.
“By focusing public engagement on a specific challenge or issue, I believe that elected officials can attract the involvement of the experts and activists most interested in solving any particular issue,” said Lira. “The audiences that congregate around each specific challenge will also be motivated to keep the discussion qualitative.”
But social media isn’t yet the proverbial “town square” democracy that some might hope for. “The current platforms … still have far to go before there is direct governance,” Bhadelia conceded, citing concerns about verifying the locations and motivations of the most active politically minded social media participants. “Is this person a constituent? Are the views held by a broad slice of the district or the vocal few?”
To win at social media, you’ve got to keep it personal. In the future, can a political candidate still be in the game if he or she is delegating social outreach to staff, as many do today?
“A good new media guy who can write well can still do it,” said Lansing. “Five years from now, it will need to be at least 50/50.”
“I don’t believe that an elected official can be removed from the process,” Lira added. “The staff can, as they do in other areas, support that communication. The essence of that communication, however, begins with the elected official.”
Komar sees social media as yet another component of the larger communications picture, and handing off responsibility might just be a matter of course in terms of time management.
“[P]oliticians and candidates delegate drafting of press releases to staff. They delegate drafting of speeches to staff. They delegate drafting policy positions and fundraising asks to their staff. So yes, serious politicians can still delegate some social media outreach to staff as well.” He noted, however, that candidates who passall of their social media engagement on to staffers will be missing big opportunities for authentic engagement of supporters.
As in many sectors, it’s likely the political landscape will be radically different in just a few years thanks to social media’s pervasive influence on our ideas about culture, business, celebrity and public discourse. The ways in which we think about candidates and elected officials will change based on how connected we feel to them. And that will influence how we vote.
“The day is fast approaching when you can win your election on the basis of a really good social media campaign,” said Lira. “Build genuine connections with your constituency, authentically engage with them, and you can earn their support.”
Lansing’s advice to would-be candidates of the digital age is to “be very aggressive. What social media allows you to do is build an empire, and the timid do not build empires.”
What do you think? Does your local Congressperson have a place in your Facebook news feed? Do you engage your government directly via Twitter? Do you feel your online voice matters to legislators? Share your thoughts on the future of social media and politics in the comments.