The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 took place over seven venues, with 10,000-20,000 attendees and no microphones. One candidate would speak for an hour, followed by a 90-minute rebuttal and then a half-hour response from the original speaker (which alternated debate to debate). This description alone is almost 280 characters—clearly we've come a long way from Honest Abe to the Twitter age. But should we believe the hype about social media's impact on the 2012 election?
Pew Research says no. "Cable leads the pack as campaign news source," it concludes in a recently released 35-page report. "Twitter, Facebook play very modest roles.”
Too bad that misses the point. New technologies have always altered campaigns and usually in mysterious ways. Party conventions were first televised in 1952 and soon lost their relevance, becoming scripted theater. Richard Nixon lost votes by sweating under harsh lighting during his televised debate with JFK. Bill Clinton bypassed the traditional news media, playing "Heartbreak Hotel" on his sax on Arsenio Hall's late-night show. MoveOn.org used the Internet to accumulate small donations and host a virtual primary won by Howard Dean, who in turn was brought down by a scream, which in turn went viral on the Web. YouTube was soon created and in 2008 hosted "Obama Girl" and other user-generated campaign ads.
In November 2008, Twitter had about four million users, and 100,000 followed candidate Obama. Today, President Obama has more than 12.5 million followers (while Mitt Romney has about 350,000 and Rick Santorum about 150,000). In 2008, Facebook had roughly 50 million users—nowhere near today's 845 million—and Google+ didn't exist.
Facebook and Twitter are already rivers of political banter—from Rick Perry's "oops" video to infographics of Mr. Obama's insider deals at the Department of Energy. Our friends find dirt and post it without thinking twice. So it tends to be partisan, extreme and divisive—more like a cocktail party than the evening news.
But campaigns can't just do "media buys" of $10 million on Facebook and expect anyone to notice. TV ads are effective because they're intrusive, and this year we'll see $3 billion worth of them, up from $2.1 billion in 2008. Social networks are more subtle media.
Jonathan Collegio of the American Crossroads political action committee explains that "you can bang a TV audience over the head with ads, but online content has to be hot to go viral. No one wants to tweet about or post a lame ad on their Facebook page." Corporations already know this. Vitamin Water "crowdsourced" its next drink flavor, allowing Facebook users to debate and choose it. Old Spice let us tweet to the shirtless guy in its commercial and post 180 response videos with six million views on YouTube—doubling sales in the month the campaign ran. Corona Light became the "most liked" beer on Facebook by letting users upload photos to a 40-foot Times Square billboard.
This viral marketing is what corporate and political campaigns increasingly thrive on, and today it's mostly free. By the 2016 election, it'll surely steal some of the $3 billion in TV ad money. It costs money to stock the campaign backrooms—herbal tea-infused, never smoke-filled—in which coders are tasked with finding innovative ways to bring undecided voters into the fold.
Far better to do that online than through, say, direct mail (which was still a $1 billion political industry in 2008, even though in so many homes it increasingly means mail thrown directly into the recycling bin). Online, one's political affiliation—Democrat, Republican or, most important, independent—can be easily ascertained. Campaigns can read your tweets and your Facebook "likes," plus those of your friends. Campaigns build new databases of independents every election because converting them to one side or the other is the name of the game.
The greatest effect of social networks on Election 2012 will take place behind the scenes. Social networks, like real life, are driven by influencers—not necessarily those with the most friends or followers, but those whose thoughts, ideas and opinions have the biggest impact. Mr. Collegio notes that for political action committees "to seed opinion makers, Twitter is the ultimate platform. Ideas grow into stories on blogs and eventually in the mainstream media." Not the other way around.
For years Google has ranked Web pages according to an algorithm called PageRank. Now there's a new field of study around ranking users in social networks—PeopleRank—according to their influence: how many of their tweets are read, re-tweeted, include links that others click on, etc. Corporations trying to sell high-ticket items are all over this, looking for industry experts, analysts and other buyers that people respect. Startups like Quora and Klout have their own algorithms but you can bet that both major parties are investing in this new-age influence peddling (with Democrats way ahead so far).
Those with social-media "influence" are most likely to help campaigns convert interest into votes. Finding them in the haystack of the real world is tedious and expensive. But harnessing fast servers and constantly upgraded algorithms to find them on social networks is already happening—and it'll definitely sway who becomes our next president.