Online Advocacy Tools: Social Media

July 3rd, 2006

Updated January, 2011

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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.

Next: Video and Animation

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alex UA  |  September 28th, 2006 at 8:54 am

    One tool that campaigns should use is something that automatically requests friend additions based upon a number of categories and demographics, such as Friend Blaster Pro. I also would strongly suggest that campaigns not just focus on demos of age, sex, race, etc, but that they use lifstyle choices, such as genres of music, to add friends.

  • 2. Brian Edwards  |  July 20th, 2007 at 3:21 pm

    My friend and I are almost three weeks into the launch of our Republican 2.0 site, which we hope will attract all Digg and Reddit users that have had enough of conservative, or even slightly right-leaning news sources being totally suppressed. Reddit in particular advocates the suppression of any perceived pro-Bush, or pro-GOP stories, so there is really no benefit for conservative or Republican users of these sites. You are welcome to contact me at 847-791-1065 if you had any questions, or were interested in profiling the site. It is the first conservative 2.0 project on the internet and we hope to generate a lot of buzz in the next couple months. Thanks for your time and I hope to hear from you.

  • 3. Pete  |  October 1st, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    We’ve just launched a new website (mygrassrootsnetwork.com) that provides a “plug and play” social network service. You can create your very own social network and add a few lines to HTML to your existing website to let visitors and users join your network. We’re currently in Beta and targeted towards political campaigns, political groups and advocacy groups. Come by and check us out at http://www.mygrassrootsnetwork.com. All feedback. is appreciated.

  • 4. Ranjit Mathoda  |  March 21st, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    You may find my blog post on Obama, social networking and the coming Digital Presidency of interest: http://mathoda.com/archives/189

  • 5. spotahottie  |  September 27th, 2008 at 10:13 am

    This is really interesting. As a site owner, I have been struggling with the idea of adding social media to my site whcih reflects my pollitical opinions.

    On one had, I dont want to offend a guest, on the other hand, I think.. every other site is pushing their opinion, why shouldn’t I?

    I better figure it out soon or I will have to wai until 2012.

    Social Networking, for adults. Free chat rooms. Photo and Video upload

  • 6. ramon  |  June 18th, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    I found a site that can definitely bring this to light. The site is a new social network that just launched a month or two ago that alot of people in the Long Island, Ny area are seeming to like. It has a radio station where the user votes music in and out of roation just llike traditional radio & every so often people can inject shout outs or audio ads. This can be a very effective tool for any political party.

  • 7. e.politics: online advoca&hellip  |  November 5th, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    [...] The message below came in recently from an alert reader, who received it from Al Gore/Repower America and passed it along because she thought it was a great example of how to really lay it on too thick in a mass email. The online tool itself that Al’s promoting? Neat all around — it collects video clips from people across the country and displays them through a cool Flash interface that lets you scan around remarkably easily. A little slow to load, but an impressive visual experience with a great social media angle. [...]

  • 8. e.politics: online advoca&hellip  |  December 7th, 2009 at 12:29 am

    [...] of engagement work in the other direction as well — if you’re planning a social media-style create-a-video contest, for instance, find a way to involve people who AREN’T actually doing the shooting and [...]

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