By Ian Rosoff
Imagine what the Twitterers and Facebooks would have been like on November 7, 2000 the day that Al Gore and/or George Bush won the presidential election?
That same year that Malcolm Gladwell published a little known text called The Tipping Point, SixDegrees.com was the social network du jour (which closed down less than two months after elections) and Mark Zuckerberg was 16 years old attending prep school in New Hampshire.
In the Tipping Point, Gladwell put forward the “Law of the Few,” where he argued “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” He’s not talking about Ashton Kutcher and Lady Gaga, but rather, within discrete and local groups of people, individuals who are influencers across multiple networks.
Political scientists at UC San Diego argue that a Facebook message on Election Day drove 340,000 voters to participate in the 2010 midterm elections.
You may remember seeing this four years ago. The message was simply a display of friends who had voted already. We’ll probably see many more things like it in November.
Apparently peer pressure works online. The study concluded that, “strong ties are instrumental for spreading both online and real-world behavior in human social networks.” People were only more likely to vote if they saw that close friends of family had voted. Furthermore the researchers stated:
Online political mobilization can have a direct effect on political self-expression, information seeking and real-world voting behaviour, and that messages including cues from an individual’s social network are more effective than information-only appeals.
The Atlantic offers more detail about how this experiment was conducted and points to some conclusions about how campaigns will approach digital persuasion in upcoming elections.
2008 was the first presidential election in which social media was used extensively as a way to reach voters and both Obama and McCain campaigns spent millions on social media ads. The question of how effective those were in persuading voters was, and still is to a certain extent unknowable, but what’s plain is that social interactions online do have an impact on voting. Intuitively we believe this to be true in 2008 and empirically it also seems to be true for 2010. With Republicans AND Democrats now equally likely to be active on social networks, I predict the same will be true to an even greater extend in 2012.
The UCSD study suggests that Gladwell’s Law of the Few explains some of what is happening in the world of politics and elections as a result of the Facebook phenomenon. The question now is how do campaigns (political, advocacy, foundations, causes) engage the people who will use their influence to help raise awareness, win public support, attract votes or encourage fundraising.
The tech world is seeing more and more opportunities for integrating social networking in the political arena. From Popvox to AngelPolitics to PolicyMic to NationBuilder entrepreneurs are figuring out better ways to communicate, advocate, fundraise online. In each case core political behaviors are being grafted onto networks to help build awareness, reward participation and mobilize ever larger groups of people to action by strengthening networked ties.
WeThePresident is a snazzy site fully integrated with Facebook, where people can browse discussions and join or start debates on topics with friends and strangers. TheBallot.Org (a collaboration of the League of Young Voters, New Era Colorado, Forward Montana, the Bus Project and the Sunlight Foundation) is another example of new political social media. The website provides you with a virtual SparkNotes for what to expect in the polling booth on Election Day. Just type in your address to see everything that will appear on your ballot, access a Google map of how to get to the nearest polling place, and then share all that information on your social feeds.
Venturing into the world of social networks can be a double-edged sword for a campaign. Sure – you can score a viral hit and gain lots of followers. TV hosts may even quote your tweets in the news. But trying to be too clever on social networks can backfire.
During the Democratic National Convention Mitt Romney’s campaign tried, and failed to promote the hashtag #AreYouBetterOff on Twitter. It resulted in more people saying ‘Yes’ than ‘No’. Social media is fickle. The message may be in the medium but it’s also in the messenger and Romney’s difficulties connecting with people are an open secret that seem to translate from the offline to the online.
Networks and the sharing of information are at the very core of democracy, a fact that is as true today as it was when our Republic was born over 200 years ago. In TH Breen’s American Insurgents, American Patriots the author notes that:
Newspapers—a relatively innovative form of communication in eighteenth-century provincial society—helped persuade colonial readers that no matter where they happened to live, they had a personal stake in what occurred in Boston. During 1774 and 1775 an unprecedented exchange of political intelligence gained momentum, and long before the Continental Congress got around to declaring independence, a surge of shared information convinced Americans that they could in fact trust other Americans whom they had never met.
While we go alone into the voting booth it’s the opinions of family, friends, and people we respect who help us make the decision to vote and who to vote for. Part of that process now takes place online and even something as private as reading an article or a book is a potential social interaction. We read what friends read, know what friends tell us, and even vote when friends vote.
And it won’t be long before politicians are trying to buy your most influential friends…