Political Campaigns on Social Media (Notes from My Research)

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Understanding the impact of social media on politics is a monumental task. After a few months of research for the article, I was struck by the volumes of political science focusing on various aspects of the subject.

While there are scores of web material dedicated to teaching effective social media engagement for political campaigns, much of the material focuses on account basics and public relations contingency plans. All important information to be sure, but there does seem to be a gap between academic research and popular knowledge of how political campaigns function on social media.

In an effort to help bridge the gap between social media users, political candidates, advocates, and political scientists, I compiled some of my observations that weren’t necessarily relevant to the original post. I hope that these notes can help:

  • Social media users asses political content,
  • Political candidates build trust over social media,
  • Advocates plan issue-based campaigns, and
  • Political scientists consider future subject matter.

The post is then divided into sections mirroring the four points above (but be sure to read through all of them – there’s a lot of crossover).

  1. Political Content on Social Media: Knowing When to ‘Like’ 
  2. Political Candidates and Social Media Campaigns
  3. Political Issues as Social Media Campaigns
  4. Political Science and Social Media

Political Content on Social Media: Knowing When to ‘Like’ 

In 2008, the average U.S. adult spent almost eleven hours a day interacting with media in some way – online and offline. That means that adults are bombarded with ads and other messages competing for their attention for over 68% of their waking hours. With so much information, it can be a challenge for users to assess political material which often uses many of the same (or more extreme versions of) tactics that commercial ads use.

Unlike commercial ads, political material can stir more visceral emotional responses. Studies have shown that political information flows differently than nonpolitical information likely because of its high emotional factor. 

One example of the unique character of political information flows is that while all types of misinformation spread faster and farther than true information, false political content is known for having an exaggerated effect – traveling much farther and faster than say misinformation on entertainment news. Again, likely due to the emotional charge of the material.

Unfortunately for social media users, a number of forces are attempting to take advantage of their behavior by a number of means and for a number of purposes. Social media users (all around the world) should make no mistake about it – there is a war being waged to influence users’ political behavior over the platforms.

From candidates and political advertising firms to domestic and foreign governments to bloggers and independent actors, social media users are prime targets due to how often they engage with the platforms and how much information they share publicly.

Political messaging has become so excessively tailored to individual tendencies that the information might just as easily aid campaigns in suppressing individuals from voting as it does rally them to the polls. 

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Trump campaign gave an overview of their social media operations in the last days leading up to the election. A senior official revealed to Bloomberg that the campaign had “three voter suppression campaigns” that used social media data to target Clinton supporters.

Specifically, the campaign used the data to target women of color with ads that depicted a cartoon of Clinton with a quote reminding voters that she had once referred to African Americans as “superpredators.”

The impacts of these ads are difficult to tell. Some have pointed out that key districts matching these demographics saw a drop in voter support from Obama to Clinton. However, the 2016 election was impacted by so many factors that it’s difficult to make claims about the impacts of these ads in particular.

Nonetheless, the effort to suppress voter turnout, other data breaches such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the spread of misinformation in the 2016 U.S. elections should give social media users a number of reasons to think critically about the political information they engage with, share, and like.

It’s not just political campaigns either – issue-based campaigns are also competing for user’s attention. With social media debacles like the Kony 2012 campaign, users also have good reason to be hesitant to support political organizations online as it can be difficult to know if the content or creator is trustworthy.

None of the above should dissuade readers from being politically active on social media, however.

In fact, studies show social media is a great way to help build trust between citizens and their governments. Social media can also help citizens raise their voices and organize around key issues. Used properly, then, social media is a great tool for civic engagement. But, knowing how to assess political content is a skill that has yet to be taught in civics class. 

So, here is a very simple but very effective method to use when assessing political content online: use the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” system when assessing political content you encounter on social media (or anywhere).

If you see questionable political content, here’s how you can use the system: 

  • Who: ask yourself who would want to distribute the content that you’re seeing. For example, would a political campaign be the most likely to push the material? Is the campaign one you support? Is the campaign one that doesn’t want you to vote? Would an activist organization put this information out? Would the press put this out? If you feel comfortable using the link, it’s usually a good idea to verify the source by, at least, checking the site’s url and/or about page. A good rule of thumb is – ‘when in doubt, click through to About!’
  • What: ask yourself what the content’s purpose is. Is the material making someone look really good or someone look really bad? Does the content get a strong emotional reaction from you or others? Is the information presented in a way that makes it more emotional than it needs to be? Asking yourself these questions can help you get in the head of the writer and discover potential hidden agendas. Then you can make better-informed decisions about what (if anything) you want to do with the information.
  • When: ask yourself why would you see this information at this time. Is there an election soon? Is the content recent or does it seem to be exploiting something in the past without much context? Asking yourself these questions can reveal a lot about the marketing agenda for the content on your feed. A good rule of thumb is to be cautious of content that references the past if you don’t clearly recall it or can’t substantiate the event with a quick google search. 
  • Where: ask yourself about what’s happening in your local context that might impact what type of advertising you’re seeing. Are you in a swing district? Are you in a clearly defined political boundary? Your physical geography can be enough to make you a target for political pressure – always be familiar with how your local context fits into the national picture.
  • Why: ask yourself why would someone be showing you this information. Is it someone with your best interests at heart or someone with a political agenda? While the ‘why’ question may be the most obvious one to ask, it’s an important one to carefully think through. Why are you seeing this ad, can be a revealing question to answer as you think through what data on your social media profile might have led political advertisers to you.
  • How: the last question to ask is how your engagement with the content could impact you and your community. How would sharing the news impact political discourse in your community?  Are you willing to share the responsibility for spreading misinformation if the material turns out to be false? Are you willing to help raise awareness of an important social issue? Supporting causes on social media has been shown to make a difference, but users should be mindful that every engagement a user has on social media alters the flow of information for their entire community. 

Political Candidates and Social Media Campaigns

There are no shortages of firms willing and able to manage digital campaigns for political candidates. There is also no shortage of free web pages that give initial, free advice for campaigns. However, as I stated above, advice for political campaigns are often basic guidance on setting up accounts or planning for public relations debacles. 

Through my research, I recognized that social media may be one more area in which local, independent, or otherwise lesser-known candidates can be disadvantaged if they don’t have the capacity or the funds to hire large consulting firms.

This ran counter to my original assumption that social media would instead help “level the playing field.” I now suspect that I am wrong or, at least, that social media is a mixed bag for low profile candidates. 

If you’re a political candidate feeling overwhelmed by social media campaigns, please tweet @streetcivics and we’ll be sure to bring more resources your way!

At the very least, candidates should be aware of a few important data points that can help inform how they engage their audiences. Knowing these things can help build an approach to social media that will be effective and meaningful.

  • People seem to follow politicians on social media for three main reasons: 1) to get the news faster than everyone else; 2) to feel a personal connection with the politician, or 3) because they believe information seen first-hand on social media is more trustworthy than what is on traditional media. These reasons are from a 2015 Pew research poll and the analysis of Monica Anderson (who is a solid analyst and a must-follow for campaign managers).

    While this analysis was conducted in the US at a particular time, these reasons provide a good guidepost for those in the U.S. and other contexts until local research can be done. Knowing that these three reasons usually drive user engagement with politicians on social media, there are a few takeaways for political campaigns:

    • Users don’t necessarily want entertainment from politicians. While speaking in a current voice and understanding the trends are important, candidates and officials should be mindful not to stray into dramatic displays of partisanship. Entertainment-like engagement from politicians may help build a short-term following, but it likely also contributes to hyperpartisanship, a breakdown in public dialogue, and ultimately leads to an inability to govern.
    • Users are looking for breaking news. Anytime an official has a bit of news they can appropriately share ahead of traditional media, that’s a good time to engage with users and build trust.
    • Note that in the study linked above, Republican voters are more likely than Democrats voters to follow politicians for breaking news (50% vs 35%). Republicans are also more likely than Democrats to trust social media more than traditional media (33% vs 20%).
    • Users place a lot of faith in the social media accounts of politicians, and it’s something campaigns and officials need to consider more carefully (see below). 
  • Social media can make or break the trust between citizens and their government. Studies have shown that when citizens are able to engage with officials in a meaningful way over social media their trust in governmental institutions will grow. Political candidates should keep in mind, then, that their online engagements don’t just reflect on themselves and their campaign, but also the office for which they are running for or hold and, potentially, the entirety of the U.S. government.

    In other words, political candidates would best serve their government (and party) by conducting themselves online with the highest degrees of respect, diplomacy, and candor with other politicians, arms of the government, and, of course, the people. Despite emotionally-charged engagements getting more interactions in the short-term, high-drama social media engagements involving politicians likely erodes trust in government and may lead to a decline in the rule of law. 
  • It is possible to run political campaigns entirely on social media. If you’re a low-profile candidate and are trying to run a campaign on social media – you need to study “El Bronco.” If you don’t know, El Bronco (Jaime Heliodoro Rodríguez Calderón) ran his initial campaign for governor of Nuevo León, Mexico in 2015. He pulled off an extraordinary victory. As far as I can tell, he is one of the best examples of how politicians can use social media to advance public dialogue and create trust between officials and the people.

    One key point that I saw in El Bronco’s social engagement with users was that he worked hard to have legitimate conversations with people and provide thoughtful replies. This method helped put him in office, and social media has continued to serve as the main channel between him and his constituents long after the election. Keep in mind though, that every community has a different relationship with social media and your community may differ substantially from El Bronco’s.

Political Issues as Social Media Campaigns

Social media has proven to be a useful organizing tool but, in most cases, it’s one communication channel among many. Organizers should always keep in mind, then, that going viral can only take your issues so far. Even with public awareness, generating political will can require a lot of in-person engagement with supporters, allies, opponents, officials, the media, etc. So, it’s best to make social media one part of a larger campaign.

That being said, social media can require some thought and elbow grease that differs from other aspects of the campaign. 

As I discussed above and in the original post on the impact of social media, novel information spreads the fastest and the farthest on the platforms. According to Visual Capitalist, social media users are most likely to share news-related items. This puts advocates in a good position to get their issues to go viral.

Putting out original research or new information on a topic can be a good way of increasing chances of going viral. Humor is also very effective but can be risky for political issues. Opinion pieces can be good filler, but news is 30% more likely to be shared that an opinion piece.

While every post has a chance of going viral, advocates should note that campaigns can still take years, a decade, or maybe more to catch on and have their viral moment.

The #MeTooMovement, for example, was first put on social media in 2007 when the coordinator, Tarana Burke, created a Myspace.com page for the cause. It wasn’t until 2017 that the campaign finally caught on when Alyssa Milano retweet a post from Burke. Within days of Milano’s tweet, the campaign had gone around the world.

A celebratory endorsement is always a good way to boost a campaign, but coordinators should remain mindful to, when possible, center the voices of impacted communities.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign, for instance, had some issues after the message had been lifted from its original context in Nigeria. Many high-profile voices lined up to help amplify the campaign aimed at bringing back kidnapped girls from Chibok, Nigeria but may have gotten ahead of local voices. Consequently, the campaign gave leverage to Boko Haram and made the girls subject to state and public scrutiny.

As a guide for advocates, I suggest thinking through the five “C’s” for social media campaigns: content, creator, context, cause, and coordination.

  • Content: Research has shown that, while nostalgia and disgust can drive user engagement, positive emotions are most effective in driving viral activity; an important point to keep in mind when framing messages. Interactive content is also best for reaching people – including quizzes and surveys (a GREAT tool for educating people). Advocates should also take care to be as precise, accurate, and as nuanced as possible. If you’re running a campaign on social media, I highly recommend becoming familiar with the case of the Kony 2012 campaign; it offers some important lessons for advocates.
  • Creator: If you are creating a new campaign, it’s important to think through what, if any, voices are most important to center. Should the campaign gain a celebrity benefactor, it’s critical to coordinate well with the celebrity and to leverage the help without displacing important voices. Similarly, if you are supporting someone else’s content or campaign – it’s critical to make sure the original voices remain central and help drive the direction of the campaign.
  • Context: We often don’t think of the context factor when assessing social media trends, but it’s important to keep in mind that communities can have different relationships with social media. Going back to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign mentioned above, high-profile allies lost sight of the context in which the issue was occurring with real consequences on the ground. Governments all have different relationships with social media as well. Advocates should be mindful that political advocacy on public platforms can make them a target of state and non-state surveillance in many countries.
  • Cause: This is the simplest item to remember, but maybe the hardest one to implement. Remember to stay focused on the cause – not the emotional debates surrounding the cause. Diplomacy and tact can go a long way – even on social media.
  • Coordination: Coordination is the exciting part – leveraging the digital world in the real world. Always understand how your social media strategy fits into your larger ‘change strategy.’ How are you going to leverage those likes? Maybe start a petition? Record yourself presenting the petition to the appropriate official? Social media is great for informing people, but it’s up to the organizer to translate the online engagement to offline action.

Political Science and Social Media

Collectively, we are learning a lot about information flows and networks through the endless amount of data supplied by social media platforms. The ample research at the intersection of social media and politics has big implications in other areas of our lives as well and the field has an exciting future. 

It was to my surprise then, that I stumbled upon two important aspects of social media’s impact on politics that have not received much attention yet – at least as far as I could tell in publicly available research. These two areas are:

  1. The male experience in online politics: While there are many studies on social media harassment in general and against women in particular, there is still much we don’t know about the male experience online.

    Pew polls have indicated that men, on average, receive more political harassment than women, but women face much higher rates of gender-based harassment. I am under the impression (though I was unable to confirm this with researchers) that most of the harassment – political or otherwise – is coming from men. Understanding these motivations and the male experience online, then, is something that could potentially help advocates create a better, safer online environment.
  2. Voter suppression: As mentioned in the section above, voter suppression tactics of targeting key demographics with disempowering messages may become more prominent in future elections. Currently, bona fide data collection and analysis on the impacts of these ads on voter turnout is very scarce, but potentially very valuable.

Starting a political or issue campaign? Check out our recommended strategies, tips, and warnings for getting started online.

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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