Day -14: Can social media really change votes?

Tonight I was honoured to give a guest lecturer at the Labor Guild School of Management in Boston, Massachusetts about the role of social media for unions.

I’ve written a fair few blog posts (and an e-book) about how unions, political parties and causes can use social media for identifying, activating and motivating activists, delegates and volunteers. I’ve argued that social media — such as Facebook or Twitter — uses the power of weak ties and the psychology of small asks to “nudge” people towards greater identification and support for a cause. The underlying message of these posts has been that social media must be tied to a real world action to have value.

With the national polls in the US election currently tied between Obama and Romney, the question of whether 2012 is a “social media election” remains open. Obama holds a massive lead over Romney when it comes to Facebook fans (or “likes”), Twitter followers and on every other social network.

Research into the role of social media in influencing or even predicting the outcomes of elections is not good. For example, research into whether Twitter could predict the outcome of elections (pdf link) based on “sentiment analysis”, tweets, follows and retweets found that it was “no better than chance” in its predictive power.

In my view, even having hundreds or thousands of likes or retweets, or hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube does not necessarily equate to any concrete outcomes for a campaign.

Another thing to consider is that around 90 percent of the electorate has already made up their mind weeks or even months out from Election Day — which means that all the advertising and social media shares in the world will not change their views. The nature of social media advertising is also largely counter-productive to the personal, in depth, human nature of conversations required to influence someone’s voting behaviour. Research shows that personal, face-to-face conversations are most likely to influence someone’s vote and actually get them to vote. A postage-stamp sized ad on Facebook, or a story on a newsfeed almost diminishes the message.

The 2008 election was largely described as the digital election, due to Obama’s massive online fundraising success. However, in the weeks leading up to November 6, the real strength of his campaign was the field operation — the enormous Get Out The Vote machine — that substantially increased the number of people registered to vote and who actually ended up voting.

Social media’s utility really is identifying activists and potential supporters — who then must be contacted in traditional ways.

In my experience in union organising (and social organising) is that the drop-off rate (or “flake rate”) for events is around 50%. This means that when you confirm 10 people on the phone to attend a union meeting, you’ll probably expect to get five of them to actually attend. On social media, this is even higher. This is due to the move from a “frictionless” online environment (Facebook) to the real world.

Digital is much more effective for fundraising because the fiction is largely reduced or removed. For activities or action in the real world, the fiction of moving from online to the flesh is substantial.

Can social media actually change how someone votes?

Probably not. Changing someone’s attitude is very difficult. Even multi-million dollar mass advertising campaigns is mostly unable to change someone’s view once they’ve formed it. Twitter — which is mostly an echo-chamber when it comes to politics — is probably even less useful than Facebook for its ability to change someone’s views.

What can change views — and votes — is personal contact. Real people doing real things in the real world. The most effective way to change attitudes is to change behaviour.

Social media can help in targeting, in identifying, the people who need to be contacted.

This is where I believe the Obama campaign has really excelled. They’ve linked their digital and social media operation — their massive email and donor database, interactions on the website, and engagement on social networks — with their field operations. People who sign up online are contacted by volunteers and encouraged to take real world actions in support Obama’s re-election.

But social media changing votes alone? I’m not convinced.

2 responses to “Day -14: Can social media really change votes?”

  1. Alex Praça Avatar
    Alex Praça

    This is a great article and somehow unexpected. I was very surprised to know that Obama´s campaign – which is always seen so cutting edge on social media – is actually based on personal contact after all.

    Perhaps in future posts you could go a little deeper on what you say here: “A postage-stamp sized ad on Facebook, or a story on a newsfeed almost diminishes the message”.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Alex, thanks for the comment.

      By “postage-stamp sized ad” I mean the Facebook ads that campaigns and businesses purchase for display in the Facebook sidebar. The Obama campaign runs these ads for example to try to attract new supporters. For example, there was a “sign Barack’s birthday card” ad on Facebook that took you to a landing page on where they asked for your name, address, cell phone and email address, etc.

      The same goes for when a campaign post appears on a person’s newsfeed. The nature of the post — typically short with a strong call to action — and those Facebook ads, can risk, in my view, diminishing the “presidentialness”.

      E.g. if you have a big message, consider the medium you’re sending the message out on. Is it appropriate.

      I’m not suggesting “never use Facebook”, but keep this kind of thing in mind.