Social Media in Elections: Crystal Ball or Echo Chamber?

Brian Matthew Levin
Yale University Political Science Senior Essay Advisor: Paul Bass April 25, 2011

!"#$%&'& Introduction Since 2008, much has been made of the role of social media in political campaigns. Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook who spearheaded the Obama campaign’s internet operations, was deemed “the kid who made Obama President.”1 Arianna Huffington declared, “Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president.” 2 The Guardian opined that “Barack Obama's triumph was the first U.S. presidential election that was won on the internet.”3 Obama’s internet prowess is often discussed in numerical terms: his 2 million Facebook likes versus John McCain’s 600,000, his 112,000 Twitter followers compared to McCain’s 4,600, and even the 14.5 million hours of official campaign content watched on Youtube. 4 On the day after the 2010 midterm election, Facebook touted its ability to predict election outcomes in a memo entitled “Facebook Fans Help Predict More Than 70% of Key Races.”5 News outlets across the country broadcast stories similar to the ABC News headline “Popularity Contest: Can Facebook and Twitter Predict Election Results?” making the implicit connection between popularity on social media and winning elections. 6 I decided to look at what happened in the 2010 midterm elections—the second election cycle in which social media played a role—to test the conventional wisdom that emerged after the 2008 Presidential Election: that popularity on social media can predict election results. When looked at collectively, candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives who were &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
Ellen McGirt, "The Third Act of Chris Hughes [Exclusive]," Fast Company: Blog (2009): p. 48, <>. 2 Clare Cain Miller, "How Obama’s Internet Campaign Changed Politics," The New York Times: Bits Blog (2008), <>. 3 Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta, "Obama's Win Means Future Elections Must Be Fought Online," Guardian (2008), <>. 4 Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta, "Barack Obama and the Facebook Election," U.S. News & World Report (2008), <>. 5 "Facebook Fans Help Predict More Than 70% of Key Races," (2010), <>. 6 Jennifer Schlessinger, "Popularity Contest: Can Facebook and Twitter Predict Election Results?," ABC News (2010), <>.

!"#$%&'& more popular on Facebook and Twitter overwhelmingly won their races; however, an analysis of the ten most competitive U.S. Senate races shows that Facebook and Twitter did not have predictive value. Social media does not appear to be a crystal ball into American politics, but rather an echo chamber that can influence voters and build community. This paper will briefly discuss Facebook and Twitter and examine Obama’s use of social media in 2008, before looking at each of the 2010 races and discussing how social media serves as an echo chamber in campaigns.

!"#$%&(& What are Facebook and Twitter? Facebook is a social network in which users can interact with one another online. Initially restricted to students at certain colleges, the site is now open to anyone in the world. In order to interact with someone on Facebook, one must either request to be “friends” with that person, or accept a “friend request” sent by that person. The idea of this is to create a sense of privacy and community, in which one’s online circle of friends consists primarily of real-world friends and acquaintances. Users can access their friends’ Facebook profiles, which contain information about them, pictures posted of them, and their “walls,” consisting of public messages other friends have left. Users also have “news feeds” which showcase friends’ pictures, status updates, posted content as well as details of their friends’ interactions on the site. Facebook also gives users the ability to publicly indicate their support for politicians, as well as celebrities, products, and organizations. The process, called “liking,”7 is similar to becoming friends with a person on the site. With regards to becoming a fan of a political candidate, a user hits a button with a thumbs-up symbol that says “like” on the candidate’s Facebook page. Upon doing that, users can see the candidate’s Facebook posts, pictures and status updates on their News Feeds, and comment on the candidate’s Facebook wall. The news that a user became a fan of the candidate is also broadcast to the user’s friends on their News Feeds. Twitter is a micro-blog on which users write 140-character messages. As in the case of Facebook, users can signup to follow specific users. When users go onto Twitter, they will see the most recent posts, or “tweets,” written by the people they follow. Candidates, just like other


Until April 2010, this was called “becoming a fan.”

!"#$%&)& users, can post updates that will appear to their followers. Followers can “retweet,” or repost, a message on the site, which will make the message appear to their own followers.

!"#$%&*& Barack Obama’s Victory in 2008 Let us first turn to Obama’s victory in 2008. The narrative goes something like this: Hilary Clinton was the longstanding favorite and presumptive Democratic front-runner in the 2008 election. She had personal experience with the nomination process and eager supporters and donors throughout the country, not to mention Terry McAuliffe –who had run Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign and served at the helm of the DNC—as her campaign director. Thus, it was clear that Obama needed to innovate if he wanted a chance to defeat Hilary. Campaign Manager David Plouffe said, “We have to beat Clinton. She has the establishment support, she has this huge system of money-raisers, so we must create an alternative network.”8 It became clear that this alternative network would tap into the power of the internet as that would be “the only way to get to scale quickly enough.” 9 This too, would have to be reinvented. In pursuit of the 2004 Democratic nomination to challenge President George W. Bush, Howard Dean had developed an impressive online infrastructure that helped him raise more money than any Democrat in history in the fourth quarter of 2003. However, he had been unable to translate online activity into progress on the ground, and ultimately dropped out of the race and endorsed John Kerry. In crafting his own strategy, Obama declared, “'One of the lessons, obviously, for us, is making sure that the grassroots enthusiasm translates into votes…And that's something obviously that we're going to be paying a lot of attention to."10 While money is not everything, it is required to create a ground organization, buy advertisements, pay staffers, and nearly every other aspect of the campaign. Obama, who had &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
Lisa Taddeo, "The Man Who Made Obama," Esquire (2009), <>. 9 David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win: The inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory (New York: Viking, 2009) p. 21. 10 Rahef Harfoush, Yes We Did!: An inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand (Berkeley, CA: New Riders Press, 2009).

!"#$%&+& served in the US Senate for only two years prior to announcing his candidacy, could not initially compete with the Clintons. Using the internet, however, Obama raised over $500 million, comprising the overwhelming majority of the record-shattering $600 million he raised. Three million individual donors contributed to the campaign, making a total of 6.5 million donations. Six million donations were for less than $100 and the average donation was just $80.11 Many new fundraising methods were employed. People could register for Obama fundraisers online by contributing as little as $25, and then were later asked to donate more via e-mail. Using, the campaign’s own social network designed by Chris Hughes, people could create listings for campaign events in their communities and solicit donations from attendees. The site also allowed people to set individual contribution goals and earn virtual points for donating, creating a competitive dynamic. Sophisticated metrics were used to determine which website splash pages were most effective at causing people to donate. What effect did this have on the campaign? It took Obama from being a long-shot to being what New York Magazine called the winner of the “money primary” as early as April 2007 which “arguably turned himself into the race’s co-front-runner.” 12 Two months later, headlines emerged saying, “Obama's money puts Clinton's 'inevitable' nomination in doubt.” 13 Whereas, at the beginning, Obama’s online fundraising gave him a chance, as the campaign progressed, he had a decisive fundraising advantage due to his campaign’s deft use of the internet.

Jose Antonio Vargas, "The Clickocracy: Obama Raised Half a Billion Online," The Washington Post: 44 The Obama Presidency (2008), <>. 12 John Heillemann, "Money Chooses Sides," New York Magazine (2007), <>. 13 Bill Schneider, "Obama's Money Puts Clinton's 'Inevitable' Nomination in Doubt," CNN (2007), <>.

!"#$%&,& Since was designed to make “organizing as easy as re-tweeting,”14 users all over the country planned events, asked their friends to contribute, and called voters in the lead-up to a race. When staff organizers were busy in a state prior to a primary, the campaign was able to reach out to the most active online organizers to help them set up “shadow field operations” well in advance of any official campaign presence. There was close integration with Facebook, which meant that users’ Facebook friends would be informed when their friends did anything from making a phone call through the site for Obama to attending a campaign event, creating a competitive dynamic and pressure for them to follow suit and participate in this online community.15 According to Republican new media strategist, Patrick Ruffini, “Obama used the internet to win the primary…once he won the primary, he probably already won the general but he leveraged that advantage and made sure McCain had no shot in the general.” 16

Kori Schulman, Deputy Director of Digital Content at the White House, Personal Interview, 12 February 2011. Justin Smith, "Obama-Biden Becomes First Campaign to Launch Facebook Connect Support," Inside Facebook (2008), <>. 16 Patrick Ruffini, Partner at Engage DC, Telephone Call, 25 February 2011.
15 14

!"#$%&'& 2010 Midterm Elections In the 2010 election cycle, nearly every candidate for every office in the United States used Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which had not even been discussed by the Obama campaign in 2008.17 As so much of the media hype about social media centered on the number of candidates’ Facebook likes and Twitter followers, I decided to examine the data from the 2010 U.S. Senate races to determine if there was a relationship between having more likes and followers and winning races. I hypothesized that there would be a relationship, and my reasoning was simple: popular candidates whom people support en masse online would have qualities that would cause them to win actual elections. Furthermore, given the fact that 51% of Americans are on Facebook18 and 8% of Americans are on Twitter,19 and roughly equal numbers of Democrats (44%) and Republicans (43%) use social networking sites,20 it would seem as if candidates with more Facebook likes and Twitter followers than their opponents could be said to be winning unscientific polls with large sample sizes. The headlines after Election Day 2010 appeared consistent with this hypothesis, as the U.S. Senate candidates with more likes on Facebook won 71% of elections and the candidates with more Twitter followers won 74% of elections.21 Initially, it appeared as if these sites are extraordinarily valuable crystal balls into the pulse of the electorate.

Teddy Goff, Associate Vice-President, Strategy at Blue State Digital, Telephone Call, 19 March 2011. Amy Lee, "Majority of America Is Now on Facebook: Report," Huffington Post (2011), <>. 19 Nick Bilton, "8 Percent of American Internet Users Go to Twitter, Report Says," The New York Times: Bits Blog (2010), <>. 20 Aaron Smith, "22% of Online Americans Used Social Networking or Twitter for Politics in 2010 Campaign," Pew Internet & American Life Project (2011), <>. 21 "Did Facebook and Twitter Predict the 2010 Election Results?," ProjectVirginia: Connecting Politics to the Social Web (2010), <>.
18 17

!"#$%&-.& Can we predict electoral outcomes from the number of a candidate’s likes and followers? In the ten most competitive Senate races from 2010,22 however, the outcomes were markedly different than expected. In these races, in West Virginia, Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin, the winning candidate had more Facebook likes than the losing candidate in only five of the races and more Twitter followers in four of the races. Facebook, therefore, was no better than a coin toss, and Twitter was actually worse. The numbers were not consistent across platforms where, in four of the races, Facebook and Twitter numbers contradicted one another.23 In West Virginia, where there was an open seat, Democrat Joe Manchin had 6,405 Facebook likes (58.6%)24 on Election Day compared to Republican John Raese’s 4,533 likes (41.4%). On Twitter, where there was far less activity, the results were reversed, as Manchin had 612 followers (48.5%) versus Raese’s 649 (51.4%). In the actual race, Manchin won by a comfortable 10.1%, with 53.5% of the vote as opposed to Raese’s 43.4% of the vote.

Anthony Calabrese, "Gop Beating Democrats with Social Media for Midterm Elections," PBS: MediaShift (2010), <>. 23 Facebook like and Twitter follower data curated by Anthony Calabrese is used throughout this section and is available at The election results and the FiveThirtyEight forcasts are from The New York Times website at and the FiveThirtyEight forecasts are available at 24 I have calculated the percentage of each major party candidate’s share of Facebook likes and Twitter followers in each race. This figure is displayed in parenthesis throughout this section.

!"#$%&--& In Alaska, the Republican nominee, Joe Miller, had 8,172 Facebook likes (50.4%), dwarfing the Democratic candidate, Scott McAdams, who had 4,455 likes (27.5%). Incumbent Lisa Murkowski, who ran as an independent Republican write-in candidate, had 3,694 likes (39.5%). Miller also led on Twitter, were he had 5,591 followers (48.1%) leading Murkowski who had 4,513 followers (39.5%) and McAdams who had 1,274 (12.3%). Why did Murkowksi-who ultimately won the election by 4% with 39.5% of the vote, defeating Miller, who won 35.5% of the vote and McAdams who won 23.5%-- fare so poorly on Facebook and Twitter? Given that Murkowski had lost the Republican primary to Tea Party candidate, Scott Miller, and ran as a write-in candidate, perhaps people were hesitant to publicly support her. After all, only one Senate candidate, Strom Thurmond, had ever won a write-in campaign, and that was in 1954.25 Even The New York Times “FiveThirtyEight Forecast” gave Miller a 70.9% chance of winning the seat. In addition, Joe Miller had the support of the Tea Party, the grassroots conservative movement that was largely created on the internet. As Christina Botteri of the National Tea Party organization said, “There was no way the Tea Party movement could have grown as deep and as wide as it has without social media and digital technology.”26 Thus, it is unsurprising that Tea Party supporters both in Alaska and nationwide would support Joe Miller online given the centrality of social media to the Tea Party movement.

CNN Wire Staff, "Murkowski Announces Write-in Campaign to Keep Her Senate Seat," CNN (2010), <>. 26 Chris Daniels, "Social Media Drives Tea Party Wins," PRWeek (2010), <>.

!"#$%&-/& In California, the incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer had 41,507 Facebook likes (65.1%) compared to Republican Carly Fiorina’s 22,263 (34.9%). On Twitter however, Boxer had only 23,831 followers (7.1%) versus Fiorina’s 307,151 (92.9%). Boxer won the election by 9.8 percentage points, with 52.1% versus Fiorina’s 42.3%. At the outset, the social media numbers are perplexing, not only considering that the results on the two sites are inconsistent, but that Fiorina had nearly 13 times as many Twitter followers as Boxer. However, Carly Fiorina was one of a few politicians on Twitter’s “suggested user list,” a list created by Twitter employees that was prominently displayed to the site’s users. Fiorina, therefore, had considerable free advertising on the site, making it easy to attract volumes of followers. Patrick Ruffini posits that these followers were not as energized as followers of other candidates who actively seek out the candidate and like them or follow them, and thus these numbers mean much less.27

Colorado’s incumbent, Democrat Michael Bennett, had 6,817 Facebook likes (42.7%) compared to Republican Ken Buck’s 9,135 (57.2%). Bennett, however, had more Twitter followers, with 2,287 followers (58.2%) on Election Day compared to Buck’s 1526 (41.71%). The election result was very close, with Bennett winning by just .9%, with 47.7% of the vote as opposed to Buck’s 46.8%. Perhaps the inconsistency between Twitter and Facebook is &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Ruffini, Personal interview.

!"#$%&'(& emblematic of the close, competitive nature of this race, which FiveThirtyEight predicted Buck would win by a 1.2% margin.

In Illinois’s open seat election, Republican Mark Kirk had 17,521 Facebook likes (50.8%) versus Democrat Alexi Giannoulias’ 17,003 (49.2%). Kirk also had more Twitter followers, beating Giannoulias 4387 (59.2%)-3019 (40.8%). Kirk narrowly defeated Giannoulias in the election by 1.9%, garnering 48% of the electorate while Giannoulias won 46.4%. Both Twitter and Facebook numbers were consistent with the outcome, though Kirk had a much larger advantage on Twitter than on Facebook. Republicans around the country ascribed great significance to this race, as the Senate seat had previously belonged to Barack Obama. If anything it is surprising that Kirk did not have an even greater lead on Facebook and Twitter, though his margin of victory on Facebook closely mirrors his actual margin of victory in the election.

!"#$%&-(& In Missouri’s open seat election, Republican Roy Blunt had 22,841 Facebook likes (53.1%) while Democrat Robin Carnahan had 20,154 (46.9%). Blunt also led on Twitter by a much wider margin, with 7784 (75.8%) followers as opposed to Carnahan’s 2,489 (24.2%). Blunt won the election by a 13.6% margin, so Facebook and Twitter both accurately predicted the election’s outcome.

In Nevada’s race, Republican Sharron Angle had much stronger support on Facebook, with 108,745 likes (87.8%) compared to the incumbent Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 15,118 (12.2%). Angle also had a sizeable lead on Twitter, with 8,532 followers (57.6%) versus Reid’s 6282 (42.4%). Ultimately, Harry Reid won the election by 5.8%, winning 50.3-44.5. FiveThirtyEight predicted that Angle would win by a 47.2%-50.2% margin but Angle’s margin of victory on Facebook, especially, and Twitter was much greater. This likely resulted from the fact that Angle was a Tea Party darling, enjoying national support from the Tea Party base, and that the race carried important symbolism for this group given that Harry Reid was the Democratic majority leader. It is impossible to tell which of Angle’s and Reid’s supporters on Facebook and Twitter were eligible Nevada voters. However, it is perhaps revealing that the number of people who liked Sharon Angle on Facebook comprised 33.84% of the number of people who voted for her on Election Day, while the number of people who liked Reid on Facebook comprised 4.17% of the people who voted for him on Election Day. Given that the

!"#$%&-)& median percentage of a candidate’s Facebook followers as a percentage of actual voters for the ten most competitive candidates is 2.2%, it would appear as if Angle’s gargantuan online support base was not merely local but came from across the country.

In Pennsylvania’s open seat race, Republican Pat Toomey had 5,995 likes on Facebook (38.4%) in contrast to his opponent, Democrat Joe Sestak who had 5,396 (61.6%). On Twitter, Toomey also led the virtual race with 5,995 followers (51.7%) as opposed to Sestak’s 5,603 (48.3%). The Twitter predictions very closely matched the FiveThirtyEight prediction which projected that Toomey would win 52%-48% and the actual results in which Toomey won by a 49%-51% margin.

Washington State’s incumbent, Democrat Patty Murray, lost to challenger Dino Rossi on both Twitter and Facebook while winning the actual race by a 52.4 %-47.6% margin. On

!"#$%&-*& Facebook, Rossi had 57,596 likes (71.6%) compared to Murray’s 22,827 (28.4%). On Twitter, Rossi’s lead was smaller, with 2,612 followers (57%) as opposed to Murray’s 1,967 (43%). FiveThirtyEight predicted the race would be close, with Murray wining by a 51%-49% margin, but both Facebook and Twitter would lead one to believe Rossi would win by a landslide.

Finally, in Wisconsin, Republican challenger Ron Johnson had 40,957 Facebook likes (55.6%) versus incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold’s 32,644 (44.4%). On Twitter, on the other hand, Feingold prevailed over Johnson with 12,689 followers (86.4%) as opposed to Johnson’s 2,000 (13.6%). Leading up to the election, most pundits and polls predicted that Johnson would win the race and FiveThirtyEight projected Johnson would win 51.4%-46.3%. Johnson ultimately won by a 51.9%-47% margin. The number of people who followed Feingold on Twitter comprised 1.24% of the number of people that voted for him on Election Day. This is much higher than the median for the ten most competitive races, .30%, leading me to believe that, as in the case of Sharron Angle’s Facebook likes, much of his Twitter fan base came from out of state. This is not surprising given’s campaign to “save Feingold,” who was deeply admired by the progressive net-roots.28 On Facebook, which predicted the election results, on the

Ben Smith, "Moveon: Save Feingold," Politico (2010), <>.

!"#$%&-+& other hand, the number of likes each candidate received as a percentage of the number of people who voted for him is roughly the same, with Feingold at 3.20% and Rossi at 3.637%.

Levin&18& Discussion The results show that Facebook and Twitter are of little value in predicting electoral outcomes in competitive Senate races. Why is there such a disparity between competitive races and the rest of the Senate races? In election predictions made by the New York Times, 18 of the 37 Senate races were classified as Democrats or Republicans “expected to win easily,” 15 were classified as Democrats or Republicans “expected to win narrowly” and only 5 elections were deemed “toss-up seats.”29 This is part of a broader phenomenon political scientists refer to as “Congressional stagnation” or the fact that incumbents overwhelmingly win elections, creating few truly competitive races. If an outcome of a race is deemed to be pre-determined, Gary Jacobson’s theory of “strategic politicians” applies: high-quality challengers will generally run when they have the highest chance of winning an election, not when the outlook is bleak.30 Thus, given that the outcomes of most races can be determined from the outset, it is not surprising that candidate’s support on Facebook and Twitter is correlated with electoral outcomes in upwards of 70% of circumstances. Long-shot, lowquality candidates would not tend to energize the electorate and attract support online. Furthermore, it seems logical that people would be unlikely to publicly support these types of candidates. In competitive races, on the other hand, which often garner attention at the national level, supporters of both will likely be energized and channel this onto Facebook and Twitter. One of the most interesting findings is that in five of the six most competitive races with incumbents, the incumbents won though they had less support on Facebook and/or Twitter. This is illustrative of the broader trend of social media being the “default grassroots medium for &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

"Election 2010: Senate Big Board," The New York Times (2010), <>. 30 Gary C. Jacobson, "Strategic Politicians and the Dynamics of House Elections, 1946-1986," American Political Science Review 83.773-793 (1989).


!"#$%&'(& challenger insurgents.”31 Given that there is no cost, aside from personnel or consultants, to establish a presence on Facebook and Twitter, social media is a great way for challengers and lesser-known candidates to reach out to prospective voters. Obama used social media in this way in 2008, as did Tea Party candidates such as Marco Rubio and Christine O’Donnell in 2010. Incumbents, already enjoying name recognition and having already-established fundraising networks have less of a need for social networks. Grassroots organizations can also quickly, easily, and inexpensively mobilize their bases to support candidates on Twitter or Facebook. Even though Democrats won half of the ten most competitive elections, Republicans won a combined 16 of the 20 Twitter and Facebook races for these candidates. On that point, Tim Tagaris, the New Media Director at the SEIU, argued, “Technology is a tool for everyone, a tool for the underdog and folks out of power, seeking change...their folks [Republicans] were more motivated in 2010...a larger number of people were fired up” online.32

31 32

Ruffini, Personal interview. Tim Tagaris, New Media Director at the SEIU, Telephone Call, 17 February 2011.

!"#$%&/.& The Echo Chamber: How Social Media Influences Elections A report released by the E-Voter Institute before the 2010 elections revealed that “three out of five Americans who consider themselves somewhat politically active are members of a social network, and 70 percent of them expect to vote on Nov. 2.” 33 This does not mean, however, that the three-fifths of somewhat politically active Americans on social networks engage with candidates on social networks. In fact, according to Professor Matthew Hindman, a survey of likely voters in the 2010 election cycle revealed that 89% of respondents never liked or followed a candidate on Facebook or Twitter, 7% occasionally liked or followed a candidate and only 2% frequently engaged in this way. 34 The median congressional candidate in the 2010 cycle had just 200 followers on Twitter and 1,500 friends on Facebook and even Obama’s 2 million friends were an iota of the 69,456,897 people who voted for him.35 It is impossible to know how many people who like or follow a candidate are eligible voters or even supporters of the candidate. Based on these numbers, it would appear as if liking or following a candidate is an elite level phenomenon, confined to a very small percentage of any given electorate. How then does liking a candidate or following a candidate have an impact on electoral outcomes? In his seminal work, An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs argues that there is a high opportunity cost of being engaged in the political process.36 To become informed about every single candidate from the president down to local alderman requires a significant time commitment. As Converse (1964) discovered, 85% of American voters are not ideological,

Calabrese, "Gop Beating Democrats with Social Media for Midterm Elections." C-Span, Video of Political Campagins and Social Media Panel at George Washington University, 2010, Available: 35 Federal Election Comission, "2008 Official Presidential General Election Results," (2009), <>. 36 Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper, 1957).
34 33

!"#$%&/-& but rather “group interest,” “nature of the times” and “no issue content voters.”37 Not only is the electorate not ideological, but political information is acutely maldistributed among the population. As Converse (2000) learns in his later scholarship, “The pithiest truth I have achieved about electorates is that where political information is concerned, the mean level is very low but the variance is very high.38 That is to say, that a small percentage of the population, the so-called “political elites,” possesses the vast majority of political information, while most of the population is uninformed. Given Downs’ and Converse’s findings, it is not surprising that people look to heuristics to make political decision-making easier. Rather than doing due diligence on individual candidates, people have historically looked to party affiliation. If someone decides that he likes Democrats, whether it is because he has liked Democratic candidates in the past or associates Democrats with a cause he supports, he simply votes for Democratic candidates on the ballot without knowing much, if any, information about them. Non-ideological voters tend to vote for an incumbent party if it has brought them utility and vote for members of the opposition party in an election if the incumbent party has brought them disutility, usually measured in economic terms. This is why incumbent parties are almost always punished during economic downturns, as people punish the party in power regardless of whether or not it is justified. In the digital age, social media can help reduce the cost of being informed by providing voters with another heuristic: the political preferences and opinions of their friends and acquaintances. While engaging directly with candidates on Facebook or Twitter might be considered an elite-level phenomenon, confined to a candid circle of partisans. However, social media is valuable to candidates much in the same way as it is to companies: it is the newest &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
Phillip E. Converse, "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," Ideology and Discontent (1964): pp. 21518. 38 Phillip E. Converse, "Assessing the Capacity of Mass Electorates," Annual Review of Political Science 3 (2000).

!"#$%&//& frontier of word of mouth advertising, which is, overwhelmingly the most trusted form of advertisement according to a recent Nielsen poll of 25,000 internet consumers. While 90% of respondents said that they “completely” or “somewhat” trusted recommendations from friends or acquaintances, the figures are much lower for other forms of advertising, the figures are much lower from TV ads (62%), newspaper ads (59%), e-mails (54%), and online banner ads (33%).39 This power of word of mouth endorsements explains the power of social media to influence decisions, ranging from decisions about what to buy to how to vote. According to Adam Conner, the Associate Manager for Policy at Facebook, the “viral nature” of technologies like Facebook mean that “You may not seek out Brand X, but when you hear your friends talking about it, that's something you've had entered into your consciousness.”40 Facebook and Twitter expose a much broader segment of the population to the political preferences and opinions of political elites, thus allowing people to see who their politically engaged friends and acquaintances support. As Patrick Ruffini said, “Not every single voter is going to be paying attention at every juncture in the campaign, they’re going to look to what their friends and neighbors are doing, maybe people who are politically active.” Facebook’s News Feed, the first page to appear upon logging onto Facebook, displays recent activity by users’ Facebook friends. This includes status updates, which could include declarations of support for a candidate (for example, “I’m voting for Rubio and so should you!”) or statements about a supporter’s volunteer efforts (such as “Phone banking for Blumenthal today—anyone want to join?”). Certain campaigns even integrate their campaign websites with Facebook, so that users’ volunteer activities are posted to Facebook for their friends to see (for instance, “John &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
"Global Advertising: Consumers Trust Real Friends and Virtual Strangers the Most," nielsenwire (2009), <>. 40 C-Span, Video of Political Campagins and Social Media Panel at George Washington University.

!"#$%&'(& just made 120 calls for Barack Obama,” creating a competitive dynamic. The News Feed also informs users’ Facebook friends when users post or comment on candidates’ Facebook pages, share articles or videos which may be about a candidate, or like candidates. On Twitter, users see any tweet written or retweeed by people they follow, be it a declarative statement such as “I’m voting for @JohnMcCain for sound leadership and national security” or a reaction to an event or news story “@Boxer_2010 dominated the debate…check it out @” The number of people exposed to any given tweet increases exponentially each time another user retweets it, as each new poster’s followers can now see the message. Facebook and Twitter appear to serve as echo chambers, in which political elites express their political preferences that then influence their undecided and less politically sophisticated friends. This process can be self-perpetuating, as formerly undecided voters who decide to support candidates can engage with those candidates online, thus influencing their Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Thus, it seems as if the number of people who directly like or “follow” a candidate is much less important than the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers each person who likes or follows a candidate has.41 Furthermore, the frequency with which those who like or follow a candidate engage with the candidates on Facebook and Twitter is important since that will shape how often these users’ friends and followers will see updates on their News Feeds and Twitter homepages. All of the experts interviewed agree that candidates can spur interaction with their online profiles by posting authentic and compelling content that draw users in, creating organic growth. Campaigns that merely link their Facebook and Twitter accounts to their campaign RSS feeds, for instance, cannot expect to attract social media users and spur engagement. On the other hand, campaigns with candidates who personally update their Facebook and Twitter accounts, post &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&& )*&Andrew Rasiej, Founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, Email correspondence, 9 March 2011.&

!"#$%&/(& campaign pictures and videos, and engage with followers (e.g. by asking their views on a policy issue) tend to be more successful. Candidates who generate excitement offline are also likely to see this enthusiasm manifest itself online. As Sam Arora, a delegate in the Maryland House of Delegates put it, candidates need to ask themselves, “How are you going to be someone that other people want to follow?”42 Again, the key figure is not the total number of friends or followers. Patrick Ruffini said he has managed Facebook accounts for candidates who, despite having one-tenth of the likes of their opponents, have many more people actually engaging with them by “liking” or commenting on content posted on their walls.43 This is the much more significant figure as each act of engagement creates chatter in the proverbial echo chamber. This idea that people are influenced by their friends’ and acquaintances’ political views is not novel. As Andrew Rasiej, President of the Personal Democracy Forum, noted in a personal email correspondence, “Political opinion is developed by people talking to each other. Traditionally this is done around dining tables, water coolers in the office, at local markets, park benches, etc. where people share their political opinions and form consensus.” On social media sites, however, “these voter to voter conversations are happening faster and reaching more people than the traditional methods of elections past.”44 In fact, a recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Center reveals that 22% of online Americans used social networking or Twitter for purposes related to the 2010 elections. More specifically, 11% of all American internet users used social media to see how their friends voted and 9% learned more about candidates or campaign information on social media. It is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify how many people’s voting decisions are influenced by social media generally, let alone for particular races. One thing is clear: social &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
42 43

C-Span, Video of Political Campagins and Social Media Panel at George Washington University. Ruffini, Personal interview. 44 Andrew Rasiej, Email correspondence.

!"#$%&/)& media has changed the “political media ecology” for elections.45 For some, the impact of social media may be subconscious; after months of seeing post after post in support of a candidate, a social media user might decide to jump on board the proverbial bandwagon, thinking that there must be strength in the numbers. Others might be motivated by the fact that a particular person— a mentor, a trusted relative, or a friend perceived as politically astute, for instance—has chosen to support a candidate. In perhaps the most likely scenario, information gleaned from social media will play a role in a political decision-making calculus. This is consistent with Patrick Ruffini’s explanation of how Marco Rubio won his seat in Florida:
Rubio, for instance, was able to overcome the establishment in Florida, oust a sitting governor who everyone had pegged as the lock for the nomination and do it all without spending a single dime on TV and doing it in such a way that he was raising a lot of money online, was gathering support online…that really kind of drove the narrative of beating Crist, of beating the establishment. A lot of people said that wasn’t possible because Crist had more money, but by the middle of the campaign that was no longer true. The money equation was flipped and it didn’t matter. And you had…Christine O’Donnell’s case, it didn’t matter that she didn’t have enough money…I think there’s been countless examples of that sort of grassroots momentum taking hold. Scott Brown being another example where the whole process overall seems much more fluid and much more unpredictable than it was in the in the past…Relatively few people participating in the process are actively engaged on Facebook and twitter, yet they all seem to get the message. How do you add it all up? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I can’t explain this solely based on Facebook and Twitter followers, I can’t probably even explain it solely based on Fox News and Talk Radio, it’s just the accumulation of all of these things that changed from a 3 or 4-1 Crist advantage in the polls to a tie and then eventually to Rubio being 30 points ahead in the primary, so much so that Crist dropped out. There were very few [voters] overall on social media, but I think it influenced [the election by helping give Rubio momentum and I think it’s a momentum play, surely in the primary type of situation, even in a general [election] there’s sort of momentum plays that can occur there as well.46

45 46

Ibid. Ruffini, Personal interview.

!"#$%&/*& The Echo Chamber and Community Creation Aside from social media’s capacity to influence undecided voters, it also serves to bring supporters together by creating digital communities. The aforementioned Pew survey sought to gauge the reasons why people follow candidates and political groups on Twitter and social networks. When presented with the statement, “I feel more personally connected to the political candidates or groups that I follow,” 36% of respondents said this was a major reason and 35% said this was a minor reason that they like or follow candidates, with only 30% of users saying this was not a reason.47 Why might this be the case? Supporters who engage directly with their candidates on social media platforms, also interact with other supporters. Supporters can see posts and tweets written by their candidates on their Facebook News Feeds and Twitter homepages. They can write on candidates Facebook pages, tweet positive messages about a candidate and can even refute negative messages. Supporters, therefore, have their own views reinforced and, by writing Tweets and Facebook posts, can publicly affirm support for their candidates, which can reinforce the views of others. What is the impact of digital communities comprised of people who feel a higher degree of connectedness to political candidates? Andrew Rasiej believes that the primary way in which social media helps win elections is by indirectly promoting fundraising. He said, ”campaigns that use social media well generate more money because money is a by-product of community (which social media excels at creating).” With the increased money, candidates “can then spend more on reaching beyond their core constituencies to independents, or swing voters, and they can also spend money on non-traditional outreach like blog ads, canvassing, data collection, etc.”48 It is important to note that while social media can ultimately spur supporters to become &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
47 48

Smith, "22% of Online Americans Used Social Networking or Twitter for Politics in 2010 Campaign." Rasiej, Email correspondence.


more involved—a process referred to as “conversion”—social media does not tend to lead directly to donations or volunteer activity. As Teddy Goff, Associate Vice President of Strategy at Blue State Digital noted in a phone call:
I think that the excitement you can build with [social media] has the ability to get a lot of eyeballs on something and it's great for enthusiasm [and]...if it's designed correctly, be good for acquisition so you can get new people [involved], but there's no example that I'm aware of a case where social really is what's driving hard offline conversions like them giving money and volunteering. It's more about it can bring people into your fold who then you've got a separate process and then make a much more direct ask then you can make via social, and that's usually done via email or phone, or door-to-door asking for that on say a presidential campaign...We'd be mistaken to see social as fundamentally about making a hard ask, rather than sort of engaging with people in a very soft way that's designed to walk the process that at the conclusion of which you can make a harder ask with them and probably via different channel.49

In fact, despite the hype surrounding Obama’s use of social media to raise money, with headlines such as, “How Obama Raised 87% of his Funds through Social Networking,” social networking is often wrongly confused with the internet. Tim Tagaris revealed that “e-mail is the number one driver of action” and that the “vast majority of money raised came from e-mail” in the last two election cycles;50 this means, that while exact statistics are not available, most people who donated online arrived at a donations page via a link embedded in a campaign e-mail. The response to’s “Yes We Can” video by Obama supporters is indicative of this trend. According to Teddy Goff, “To the extent it raised money, it was because we sent an e-mail out to our list of five million people or whatever it was at that time, including the video and asking them to donate. That would've probably 98% literally of the money attributable to that video and the excitement it caused came in.” 51

49 50

Goff, Telephone call. Tagaris, Telephone call. 51 Goff, Telephone call.

!"#$%&/,& Conclusion: In exploring the role of social media in elections, I have reached the following conclusions:

Looking at 2010 Senate elections, the number of candidates’ Facebook likes and Twitter followers vis-à-vis their opponents was a poor predictor of electoral outcomes in competitive races. Due to the nature of Facebook and Twitter, users’ Facebook friends and Twitter followers can see what their friends and followers like, tweet and post. When politically unsophisticated or undecided voters have friends and followers who engage with candidates they support online, they receive a powerful heuristic: the political preferences and opinions of people they know. Given the power of word-of-mouth endorsements and the high cost of becoming politically informed, voters can be influenced by their friends’ political behavior on social media (e.g. liking or following a candidate, updating their statuses with a political messages or tweeting about a candidate). Social media creates digital communities of support that reinforce positive messaging amongst candidates’ supporters that can make people more inclined to donate or volunteer.

No one knows what the future will hold for social media in elections, but it appears that social media has permanently altered campaigning, and will become increasingly important as more people come online to use social media. Some pundits say mobile apps will be the “next big thing” in 2012, while others say the major innovations will lie in analytics. With the rapid pace of innovation, anything could happen, and Anthony Calabrese, a former contributor to PBS Media Shift, seems astute in saying, “2012 is going to be like 2010 on steroids. There are lots of unknowns because the ‘next Twitter’ has not materialized and a new disruptive technology may be just around the corner.”52


Anthony Calabrese, PBS Media Shift Contributor, Email correspondence, 24 April 2011.

!"#$%&/0& On March 13, 2011, Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s 2004 Campaign Manager and a pioneer in online campaigning, predicted that social media “will be the end of the parties.”53 He argued that social media and the internet enable candidates to reach millions of voters and raise vast amounts of money, duties historically performed by party apparatuses. Whether or not this ultimately comes true, campaigns would do well to heed Teddy Goff’s advice to focus on “really good content, a really powerful message, great videos, great writing, much more nuts and bolts approach combined with incredibly rigorous thinking about timing, and the segmentation…and how to inspire people at mobilize them onward.”54 Messaging and content elicit engagement, making social media valuable as an echo chamber.

Mike Zapler, "Joe Trippi: Social Media Will Kill Two-Party System," Politico (2011), <>. 54 Goff, Telephone call.


!"#$%&'-& Bibliography: Bilton, Nick. "8 Percent of American Internet Users Go to Twitter, Report Says." The New York Times: Bits Blog (2010). < C-Span. "Video of Political Campagins and Social Media Panel at George Washington University". 2010. < Calabrese, Anthony. Email correspondence. 24 November 2011. Calabrese, Anthony. "GOP Beating Democrats with Social Media for Midterm Elections." PBS: MediaShift (2010). < Clayton, Dewey M. The Presidential Campaign of Barack Obama: A Critical Analysis of a Racially Transcendent Strategy. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print. Converse, Phillip E. "Assessing the Capacity of Mass Electorates." Annual Review of Political Science 3 (2000): 331-53. Print. Converse, Phillip E. "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics." Ideology and Discontent (1964). Print. Daniels, Chris. "Social Media Drives Tea Party Wins." PRWeek (2010). < "Did Facebook and Twitter Predict the 2010 Election Results?" ProjectVirginia: Connecting Politics to the Social Web (2010). < Denton, Robert E., ed. The 2008 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. Print. Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper, 1957. Print. "Election 2010: Senate Big Board." The New York Times (2010). < "Facebook Fans Help Predict More Than 70% of Key Races." (2010). <https:// Federal Election Commission. "2008 Official Presidential General Election Results." (2009). < Fraser, Matthew, and Soumitra Dutta. "Barack Obama and the Facebook Election." U.S. News & World Report (2008). <

!"#$%&'/& Fraser, Matthew, and Soumitra Dutta. "Obama's Win Means Future Elections Must Be Fought Online." Guardian (2008). < "Global Advertising: Consumers Trust Real Friends and Virtual Strangers the Most." nielsenwire (2009). < Harfoush, Rahef. Yes We Did!: An inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand Berkeley, CA: New Riders Press, 2009. Print. Heillemann, John. "Money Chooses Sides." New York Magazine (2007). < Hendricks, John Allen, and Robert E. Denton, eds. Communicator-in-Chief: How Barack Obama Used New Media Technology to Win the White House. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010. Print. Jacobson, Gary C. "Strategic Politicians and the Dynamics of House Elections, 1946-1986." American Political Science Review 83.773-793 (1989). Print. Lee, Amy. "Majority of America Is Now on Facebook: Report." Huffington Post (2011). < McGirt, Ellen. "The Third Act of Chris Hughes [Exclusive]." Fast Company: Blog (2009). < Miller, Clare Cain. "How Obama’s Internet Campaign Changed Politics." The New York Times: Bits Blog (2008). < "Murkowski Announces Write-in Campaign to Keep Her Senate Seat." CNN (2010). < Peddycord, Ryan. "How Obama Raised 87% of His Funds through Social Networking." Resource Nation (2008). Plouffe, David. The Audacity to Win: The inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory. New York: Viking, 2009. Print. Rasiej, Andrew. Email correspondence. 9 March 2011. Ruffini, Patrick. Telephone call. 24 November 2011. Schlessinger, Jennifer. "Popularity Contest: Can Facebook and Twitter Predict Election Results?" ABC News (2010). <

!"#$%&((& Schneider, Bill. "Obama's Money Puts Clinton's 'Inevitable' Nomination in Doubt." CNN (2007). < Schulman, Kori. Personal interview. 12 February 2011. Smith, Aaron. "22% of Online Americans Used Social Networking or Twitter for Politics in 2010 Campaign." Pew Internet & American Life Project (2011). < Smith, Ben. "Moveon: Save Feingold." Politico (2010). < Smith, Justin. "Obama-Biden Becomes First Campaign to Launch Facebook Connect Support." Inside Facebook (2008). < Taddeo, Lisa. "The Man Who Made Obama." Esquire (2009). < Tagaris, Tim. Telephone call. 17 February 2011. Vargas, Jose Antonio. "The Clickocracy: Obama Raised Half a Billion Online." The Washington Post: 44 The Obama Presidency (2008). < %3E. Zapler, Mike. "Joe Trippi: Social Media Will Kill Two-Party System." Politico (2011). <