The Social Evolution of Politics

As a social media expert with an interest in political rhetoric, monitoring the interaction between those two is a pet project of mine. But again and again, I am befuddled by how little politicians and their armies of advisers seem to know about effectively using the media. Well, recent events lead me to believe that’s starting to change.

In general, the influence of social media on politics is becoming more apparent by the minute. We have all heard about how Twitter and Facebook were crucial in the organization of theĀ  Arab Spring uprisings of the past couple of years, and this January offered another enlightening example.

When the American Congress proposed the two related bills PIPA and SOPA early this year, they intended to finally take measures against the never-ending problem of online piracy. But included measures that many thought would infringe on citizens privacy led to widespread online protests that ultimately shut down the bills.

Consider these numbers: 7 million people signed the Google petition against the act. 2.4 million Twitter users tweeted against it. Over 200,000 people called their representatives through Craigslist and Tumblr. It’s not difficult to imagine that these online protests led to a major victory for social media and citizen activism alike.

Yet in the past, politicians have had trouble catching on. Media outlets might have dubbed the 2008 Presidential election “the first social media election“, but a look social media profiles of the likes of President Obama, Sarah Palin, and John McCain reveals the only partial understanding of social media that political figures had in those years.

In essence, these players used Facebook, Twitter, etc. like many companies today still use the same outlets: just another way to disseminate information. As a result, YouTube channels were flooded with what was essentially longer versions of campaign ads, while Facebook profiles and Tweets praised the merits of the candidates.

In other words, social media in the political realm has largely been used exactly how it shouldn’t be used; as one-way communication to audiences. The interaction and relationship aspect, which separates communication modules like Facebook and Twitter from traditional outlets, has been dramatically underused by politicians.

But it looks like a change is happening. If you are an avid internet user like me, you might have seen or heard of a Tumblr page called “Texts from Hillary,” which featured various memes based on a picture of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checking her cell phone while on a military plane. As most memes, some contributed jokes were funny, some weren’t, but the website went viral early this year and soon popped up all over the internet.

What does that have to do with politicians using social media? Well, the meme reached its definite climax when it got a surprise contribution from Mrs. Clinton herself, who even included a personalized note thanking the site’s authors “for the many lolz”.

No matter how you slice it – that’s pure genius right there. Here’s one of the most powerful people in the world who is not just accepting, but embracing and contributing to a joke at her expense. I obviously don’t know how calculated Clinton’s response to the website was, but it shows an understanding of social media that is slowly creeping up on politicians.

Because social media, above everything else, is about relationship building between a brand (in this case, a politician), and its audiences. Through that relationship, brand loyalty is developed, as audiences feel they intimately ‘know’ the brand and can relate to it. And what better way to connect with young voters and build up a positive reputation than through something as popular as “Texts from Hillary”? Especially considering that analysts are already predicting how the move could help her in a possible 2016 presidential run.

Okay, so that may be a little far-reaching. But the rising understanding by politicians and their advisers on how to effectively use social media to not just blast their audience with more campaign slogans but build voter relationship is nothing if not encouraging. If you think about it, politicians acknowledging the two-way communication aspect of social media means they are realizing once again that voters’ opinions matter, and that a simple bombardment of the audience with partisan slogans won’t generate significant goodwill.

I encourage anyone reading this post to start looking at the social media presence of this year’s main players, Obama and Mitt Romney, and see if the same striving for relationship building is starting to show up there, even if not to the same degree Clinton displayed. Family photos recently posted on Obama’s Facebook page and Romney’s ‘Grab a Bite with Mitt’ suggests that the interaction arrow is pointing up.

And if relationship-building means voter (and citizen) empowerment, who could argue against that?

credit for the title image goes to Young Digital Lab, found at
http://www.youngdigitallab.net/case-history/social-media-2-%E2%80%93-traditional-information-0/

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