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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Social Media and Presidential Candidates

Campaigns have been making increased use of social media, especially since the 2008 election. A report in The Abilene Reporter-News offers some caution:
However, political science experts, including Abilene Christian University's Political Science Department Chairman Neal Coates, are questioning the success of a Twitter campaign that fails to connect a candidate to real people.

Social media search company PeekYou ran an in-depth analysis of Gingrich's followers and reported that 92 percent of his followers were illegitimate, according to the company's website.

The site says PeekYou compiled a "Followers Report" on all of the GOP 2012 candidates and reported that all but 8 percent of Gingrich's followers were anonymous or spam accounts.

"If the Gingrich campaign has inflated their followers, whether it's people following them on Twitter or any other fashion," Coates said, "it's unethical and their hand should be called."

Coates said his concerns stretch beyond ethics. A main focus in gaining support through social media sites like Twitter is reaching people with a message. Without legitimate followers, Gingrich misses out on that communication.

In fact, Coates said he believes having fake followers is worse than having no followers at all.

McMurry University's Vice President of Academic Affairs and professor of political science Paul Fabrizio agreed. Twitter serves several purposes for politicians, Fabrizio said.

First, it's a cheap and effective way to communicate. Social media hasn't completely changed the political world, Fabrizio said, but it has replaced many of the phone calls and direct mail literature.

Additionally, it's a way to mobilize people to take action. For example, Obama used Twitter last week to encourage people to contact their legislators concerning the debt crisis. One tweet by the president read, "If you live in Texas, ask @JohnCornyn and @kaybaileyhutch to support a bipartisan compromise to the debt crisis."
With more than 9 million followers, his message was heard. In addition, social media can be and has been used as a way to earn politicians bragging rights.

"It creates on the part of the politician a sense of a movement," Fabrizio said. "He can say to those followers, 'Hey, we're all part of something special, go get your friends to join our movement.'"