Waiting for the ‘Twitter Election?’ Keep waiting
Social media, credited with social and political upheaval, has yet to make an impact on the presidential race
■ BY GREGORY FERENSTEIN
“IF NO ONE under the age of 30 had
voted, Obama would have won every
state he carried with the exception of
two: Indiana and North Carolina,”
Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser
wrote in “How Barack Obama Won.”
Despite Mr. Obama’s much-hyped
“youth quake,” the young social-media army often credited with carrying him into the White House, the
2008 election was won by galvanizing
an older population of Democrats and
independents, many of whom had
never used social media.
Even more recently, the wild inconsistency between Republican primary
wins and social-media prowess has
made the relative unimportance of
social media in political campaigns all
the more obvious (i.e. internet heavyweight Ron Paul hasn’t won a single
Ultimately, Facebook, Twitter and
YouTube fans consist of reliable supporters, the growing demographic of
nonvoting 20-somethings or opposition spectators. Despite the increasing
importance of social media in business,
there is no solid evidence that it matters
and Facebook fans
as of 2/21/12
First things first:
The numbers don’t add up
If the Republican primary were a
social-media popularity contest, Mr.
Paul would be on Easy Street to the
nomination. According to social-media
analytics firm Crimson Hexagon, he
has vastly outperformed all of his conservative counterparts as measured by
total volume of Twitter mentions.
Chatter about Mr. Paul accounted for
26% of the total discussion leading up
to the New Hampshire primary, where
the actual winner, Mitt Romney, had
In raw social-media count, Mr. Paul
has six times as many Facebook followers as breakout success Rick Santorum,
who only a month ago had a meager
Facebook presence of 42,147 followers.
Mr. Romney ( 1. 5 million Facebook
fans), the once-undisputed front-runner,
has had a stronger social-media presence
than both Messrs. Paul (869,362) and
Santorum (149,610) combined yet lost
the last three primaries—in Colorado,
Minnesota and Missouri.
In statistical parlance, the social-media universe is a biased population:
Active online users hold views unrepresentative of the larger voting public.
This is further corroborated by
Google’s slick new election toolkit,
which measures total search volume
and news mentions. News volume is a
much more representative look at the
wider population, as many more citizens get their news online than follow
candidates on Facebook or Twitter.
Using this tool, both Mr. Romney and
Mr. Santorum had roughly equal news
volume, with Mr. Paul trailing both.
The Facebook politics team likes to
think their website can predict election
results. In 2010, the Facebook Politics
blog boasted that “an early sample of
some of the hottest House and Senate
races bodes well for the world’s largest
social-networking site.” It noted that
81% of the Senate candidates with
more Facebook fans had won their race.
Yet 87% of incumbents in the House
won re-election that cycle. Incumbents
are simply more popular (and they
have many opposition followers, who
need to follow the updates of a sitting
In a key contest of 2010, Tea Party
favorite Sharron Angle vs. Senate
Majority leader Harry Reid, Facebook
was wildly off. In late October, Ms.
Angle had a staggering seven times as
many Facebook fans as Mr. Reid
(104,000 to 14,000), yet he snagged a
comfortable victory, 50% to 45%.
Thus, while it is tempting to believe
that the size of a candidate’s online fan-
base is significantly helpful in getting
elected, the numbers just don’t add up.
pressure as direct human contact.
Eight years later, to further investigate their findings, Gerber and his colleagues conducted a peer-pressure-enhanced version of the direct-mail
experiment by threatening to reveal to
recipients’ neighbors whether or not
they had voted. Direct mailings with
social pressure had a dramatic impact (an
8.1% increase) “The difference between
our intervention and mail used in previous experiments is that ours harnesses
one of the most-formidable forces in
social psychology, pressure to conform
to social norms,” the study said.
On Facebook, the closest thing to
social pressure is a vote counter appended to the top of the newsfeed on Election
Day. While this most likely has some
positive effect, it certainly doesn’t pressure the legions of uninterested voters
who can float by anonymously without
ever feeling the scrutiny for shirking
their civic duties.
Moreover, internet-specific evidence
on the importance of personalized messages was observed by New York
University Professor Sinan Aral, in a
rare experimental study of Facebook-app adoption. Aral found that personalized messages to friends asking them to
try out an app increased user adoption
98% vs. a generic broadcast messaging
through the newsfeed, and increased
engagement by 7%. Because Mr.
Obama cannot personally message his
25 million fans, his influence is limited to
the faceless, soapbox shouting of a newsfeed post.
Campaigners have yet to crack the
code of translating digital enthusiasm to
offline action. For now, the influence of
Facebook and Twitter are confined to
where they live: online.
Mitt Romney and Ron Paul photos by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News
On the internet, no one
knows you didn’t vote
lot in a sealed booth is not appealing to
a generation of hyperconnected content
creators. “If you ask people how could
you affect politics and have an impact,
voting is only one of a whole variety of
things, and it’s fairly limited,” says
University of California at Irvine
Professor Russell Dalton, who found an
uptick in a young demographic of nonvoting citizens who were more interested in boycotts than in voting or jury
duty. “Engaged” citizens, as he calls
them, desire to be part of the political
process and eschew traditional notions
of civic duty.
In other words, many of the most
active young social-media fans are the
least likely to vote. “The Engaged
Citizen is more likely or as likely to do
all kinds of participation, except voting,”
said Mr. Dalton (though he tries to tell
his students that not voting is a mistake). Instead, his Engaged Citizens are
pitching tents in Occupy protests, sharing “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama” and
volunteering in their neighborhoods.
While this may be good for creating
buzz around a new candidate, which
Mr. Obama was at the time, it doesn’t
translate into the ultimate measure of a
candidate’s popularity: votes.
The internet is a very important
tool. Mr. Obama won not because he
had more Facebook fans but because he
ceded unprecedented control to his
online followers. His team opened up
the voter file so that volunteers could
make calls from home, randomly selected low-dollar donors for a small dinner
and created tools for offline organizing.
Despite the digital trailblazing in 2008,
little innovation has taken place since,
and most candidates, especially the current crop of Republicans, merely recycle
messages from stump speeches into
updates of less than 140 characters. The
potential of the internet lies in not who
follows a candidate but in how those followers are empowered.
have yet to
So, why doesn’t a social-media following
translate into votes? The internet is like
a giant trade show: a cacophony of
aggressive marketers pushing strangers
to read their pamphlets. People, however, are far more responsive to personal
messages and face-to-face peer pressure.
In an experimental field study,
Professors Alan Gerber and Donald
Green randomly chose 30,000 potential
voters to receive personal canvassing,
direct mail or phone calls. Face-to-face
canvassing “substantially” increased
turnout, while the impersonal messag-
ing of mail and calls had a much less suc-
cessful effect. The researchers concluded,
“A certain segment of the electorate
tends not to vote unless encouraged to
do so through face-to-face contact.”
Social networks, as a sea of unblink-
ing avatars, do not exert the same social
Voting is so Generation X
Voting is not a social activity; privately
casting a numerically insignificant bal-