Politics and social media may have once seemed to be unrelated terms, but they now go practically hand in hand. From Barack Obama’s use of social media in his 2008 campaign to the continuous news coverage of Donald Trump’s tweets, social media is another important component of the political sphere.
Overall, political posts account for 11 percent of U.S. adults’ typical social media posts, and 7 percent of social media users responding that they often engage in political discussion on social media.
Social media platforms obviously provide a space for people to communicate with other like-minded individuals about elections, issues and politicians, but how are those politicians leveraging this new frontier?
Benefits of Social Media
Direct contact with target audience of voters
Cost efficient messaging
Instant feedback and easy to monitor
Now more than ever people are latching on to the idea of one’s personal brand. For political candidates, this is a crucial part of their campaigns. In a campaign, politicians become brands, and their campaigns are essentially their brand platforms.
Just as in traditional B2C marketing campaigns, politicians’ use of social media depends on a unified, controlled message. In fact, this is what largely guided Brad Parscale, marketing entrepreneur and the chief executive of Donald Trump’s digital campaign efforts.
Parscale, who doesn’t come from a political campaign background, was a big part of the team that developed many coordinated campaigns, spending $70 million a month on digital advertising, mostly on Facebook. He’s also one of the few people trusted to tweet from the @realDonaldTrump account.
“I always wonder why people in politics act like this stuff is so mystical,” Parscale told Bloomberg in 2016. “It’s the same s*** we use in commercial, just has fancier names.”
He’s right about one thing. Social media does do a lot of demystifying, which is one of the core benefits for use by politicians.
Social media allows politicians to communicate plainly and directly to voters and constituents. Even though it’s part of a controlled message, social media messaging is still perceived as more authentic than a paid advertisement.
Social media can also greatly reduce the cost of campaigning for candidates. In addition to placing ads on social media platforms, candidates’ individual accounts can be a good way to reach a large amount of people at little or no cost.
Twitter and Facebook are the most popular for use by politicians, with 100 percent of U.S. Senate members posting on Twitter in 2018 and 99 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives posting. Similar statistics are evident for Facebook, with 95 percent of senators and 97 percent of representatives posting on the site in 2018.
Additionally, if a candidate can build sufficient buzz through their social media efforts, it can lead to increased attention from traditional media organizations and a change in the conversation.
The voters can also reach out to their politicians with social media. Social media platforms offer a forum from which campaign coordinators can judge feedback and public opinion, without having to hire pricy consultants or polling firms.
Lower prices and fewer barriers to entry make social media a big game changer in local politics, where government is often not a full-time job and candidates may not have the funds to run extensive campaigns.
However, paid social media advertising is also a big part of the interaction between social media and politics, with digital political ad spending projected to reach $2.84 billion in 2020, up from $1.42 billion in 2016 and just $22.25 million in 2008. This is where many of the pitfalls of political use of social media come into play.
A quick look at the top Google results for “politics and social media” will show a lot of negative coverage, understandable with the frequent news coverage of scandals like Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data.
Facebook has attempted to crack down on reports of political manipulation through its ad service, now requiring more transparency to post any paid political ads or ads dealing with any issue of national importance.
The new process requires an ad-buyer to verify their country of residency in a multi-step process and include a disclaimer on every ad. Issues of national importance range from abortion and guns to infrastructure and values.
This move on Facebook’s part illuminates the larger distrust of political messaging on social media. 34 percent of U.S. consumers said as of March 2018 they believed 76 percent or more of the news on social media is inaccurate. Also, 37 percent of social media users in the U.S. say they are worn out by how many political posts and discussions they see on social media.
Social media is a powerful tool for any individual or group involved in politics, but it can just as easily cause more problems. As attitudes towards social media and politics continue to evolve at a rapid rate, it should prove enlightening to see what developments arise and what that means for everyone else who uses social media.