Updated January, 2011
Social media is a broader concept than social networking, though people often put them together — it refers generally to content that is created by random internet users rather than by a central person or group. YouTube and Wikipedia are great examples of sites built on social media concepts, as are blogs that allow comments. How can political campaigns use social media to tap into the internet hive-mind?
Carefully, as MoveOn.org discovered during the 2004 presidential campaign. If you’ll recall, early in 2004 the group encouraged its members to create anti-Bush ads that it would then evaluate for actual use on television. Hundreds of ads were submitted and placed online, but one used historical footage to associate the Bush administration with Hitler and the Nazi party. Oops — that one ad gave MoveOn.org’s enemies fodder for days of attacks on the organization. An ad that never ran got plenty of media coverage and took attention away from the issues on which the group wanted to focus voters (though all the attention also boosted the group’s membership, so it wasn’t exactly a total loss).
Any time you open the floodgates to user-generated content, you take the same risk, so good gatekeeping is essential. That being said, allowing your members or readers to generate content has some real strengths as a tactic. For one thing, it allows you to capture the brainpower of far more people than you could reasonably hire — you can leverage the collective intelligence of a chunk of the internet. For another, it’s potentially a terrific tool for community building, which we’ll discuss in more detail in the section on building and keeping an audience.
As an example of both aspects, in the summer of 2006 the Ned Lamont campaign in Connecticut made great use of user-created video. For instance, Lamont supporters shot clips of opponent Joe Lieberman’s campaign appearances and uploaded them to the Lamont site. Minor gaffes that would have passed unnoticed in the past could thus be preserved for all to enjoy, and those behind the cameras could feel that they were an essential part of the campaign. Lamont supporters also amused themselves and their comrades endlessly by cleverly editing Lieberman footage into their own online ads and “documentary” clips. In the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, this trend only accelerated, with some memes like 2010’s “Demon Sheep” taking on a life of their own.
Besides video, a campaign could solicit slogans from supporters, ask them to contribute their own personal stories or essays to an online presentation, provide them with photos to embellish with captions and speech bubbles, or ask them to vote or comment on ads, speeches and position papers, just to name a few uses. Any of these tactics can motivate your supporters and get them to help push your campaign over the top.
Social Media, Whether You Like It or Not
One more thing about social media that campaigns need to keep in mind: it’s out there whether you want it to be or not. For instance, look at our experience in the 2008 primaries. Barack Obama benefited from the “Yes We Can” and “Obamagirl” videos, which were created by citizens without any coordination from the campaign, but he was hurt by videos of his former pastor which were posted to YouTube. All the major campaigns had Facebook Groups for and against them; all had blogs building them up and cutting them down.
In a social world, campaigns need to pay attention to a vast new array of content producers whom they never had to worry about before, since some college kid (or some grandma) can produce a viral email or a powerful video piece that can drown out the message the campaign is actually trying to get across. Whether campaigns actively use social media tools or not, they’re being used on them. Fun times, if you ask me.