Social media changing the nature of campaigns

Herald Times: A successful run for elected office may come down not just to speeches and debates, but to how well candidates can string together 140 characters and update their status.

A successful run for elected office may come down not just to speeches and debates, but to how well candidates can string together 140 characters and update their status.

Paul Helmke, director of the civic leaders center at Indiana University, said this election season has highlighted the impact social media has on not only how candidates campaign but also how voters learn about those seeking elected office and how activists mobilize supporters.

Monroe County Democratic Chairman Mark Fraley said at the local level, he sees social media being more valuable to rally and interact with supporters already on the party’s side rather than draw new supporters.

“Social media is a valuable tool for being in touch for the people who are with you,” Fraley said. “Not the best tool to try and persuade voters.”

Monroe County Republican Party Chairman William Ellis agreed that social media is an effective way to communicate to supporters where candidates are and what they are doing. Ellis said the message candidates send to voters has to have substance to even have a chance of winning support, and that is best achieved through interaction with voters, especially at the local level.

“Social media is the cherry on top,” Ellis said.

Helmke said social media’s impact on elections is not a recent or new phenomenon. Throughout the nation’s history, as media changed, the electoral process evolved along with it. Helmke said from printing speeches in newspapers to collecting email lists, the go-to way for candidates to interact with the voter has changed depending on the technology available.

Helmke said the first real use of social media on a campaign was back in 2008 as part of Barack Obama’s presidential race, but since that time, it has grown to a point that if candidates wish to be successful, they have to either master the medium or at the very least be adaptive.

Fraley said this is why whenever a local candidate plans to run for office, part of the training involves campaigning on social media. He said social media has the capacity to break a campaign much faster than bolster it, so understanding how to use it correctly is important for candidates.

Helmke said this is something Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump have a handle on.

“One of the keys to his success is that he is a master of Twitter,” Helmke said of Trump, who has 8 million followers on the platform.

In addition, the influence of social media is spreading to other traditional forms of media. Ellis said it is not uncommon now for print media to refer to something a candidate or other users say about the election on social media. At times a tweet could be at the center of a breaking election news story, something not heard of in past elections.

Ellis said it also changed how candidates interact with voters. For example, there is almost an obligation to respond if asked a question on social media or, worse, made the subject of a negative comment or meme. That is one thing Ellis said Trump does effectively. Whenever something shows up online attacking his position, people wait to hear him fire back.

Effect on voters

Social media affects not only candidates but voters as well.

Helmke said social media has helped to democratize the process. It provides a way for voters to interact with candidates, which makes them feel more connected. It also gives voters more freedom and a greater audience to comment on the political process.

One example, Helmke said, is popular memes and gifs (brief video snippets) seen throughout the election, which he likens to what political cartoons were created to do, only this time anyone can create an image with just a few clicks.

“Once you get it out there with the hashtags, people will see it, and it would go viral,” Helmke said.

Social media has also changed how voters find out about candidates. Fraley said social media allows voters to be extremely selective in the information they receive, so a voter can choose to follow or like only content that agrees with his or her political perspective.

“The voter has a narrow starting mechanism for getting the news,” Helmke said.

In fact, social media has grown to be one of the more popular ways voters learn about candidates, especially among those age 18-29. According to a Pew Center research poll, in a survey conducted in January of this year, 14 percent of those surveyed identified social media as a most helpful source to learn about the presidential election. The leading medium in that poll was cable TV news, which held the number one spot for learning about election coverage for the 30-49, 50-64 and 65+ age groups.

Fraley said the disadvantage of learning from social media is that anyone can post information, so the news consumer really has to scrutinize the information received.

Helmke said the danger comes when voters treat all sources as if they are of equivalent value. In addition, there is little encouragement to look deeper into an issue, he said, as the intent is really to provide the voter with a really quick, surface view of an issue.

Another way social media affects voters is in how they examine political scandals. Helmke said something outrageous a candidate does can disappear within hours, while in the past it could be making headlines for a couple of weeks. He said that is because everything is happening more quickly, thanks to the ease of posting, so what could be trending at one hour can quickly fade.

“The candidates who figure out how to use, exploit and do well with all this new social media — that is the candidate that will do well this year and years to come,” Helmke said.