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Social Media A New Layer For Campaign Messaging


No need to tweet this, it's hardly news: the use of social media has exploded this election season. There were some 7.2 million tweets sent during this week's presidential debate, compared to just half a million over the course of all four debates of 2008. And while hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by the Obama and Romney campaigns to reach voters by TV advertising, they pay attention to social media, too.

ZAC MOFFATT: And I think that belief has passed, that you can reach everyone by television. You can still change perspectives, but you can't reach everyone by just television alone anymore.

SIMON: That's Zac Moffatt, who is Mitt Romney's Digital Director, speaking at a panel discussion this past summer at the Republican National Convention.

MOFFATT: And so as a result you're always going to have to look for new ways to get into people's kind of stream of conscious, whether or not it's through Twitter, whether it's through Facebook, whether it's through Google Plus or it's through YouTube. If you don't try and have conversations on these platforms, you will just miss people.

SIMON: And if you want to work for a candidate in your community, there's an app for that.

JOE ROSPARS: What we're seeing is that people are really hungry to have more control over their organizing experience in their own hands. And so to be able to go into the app store, which everybody should do, and download the Obama app...

SIMON: Joe Rospars is the Chief Digital Strategist for Obama for America, and he talked about social media during a panel at the Democratic National Convention.

ROSPARS: But now you can find that 15 minutes and make some phone calls or find a local event near you. If you happen to be walking down the street and your plans change, you can go into the Obama app and discover an event that's near you.

SIMON: Daniel Sieberg is part of Google's Politics and Elections team, he joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL SIEBERG: It's good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: You were in these panel discussions at the respective conventions. Give us your analysis about both major campaign have been using social media; has it been effective, have there been some missteps?

SIEBERG: Sure, I've had a chance to talk with both Zac and with Joe at the conventions. I've also had the opportunity to be at all of the debates recently, and certainly I think both campaigns would say that compared to 2008, they've put more weight, more resources behind their social media campaigns. They perhaps would argue that they take them a little more seriously.

You know, back in 2008, the Obama campaign was praised for having tapped into that stream of voters perhaps much better than the McCain campaign had. However, I think that, you know, a lot of political pundits and analysts would agree that they've really leveled out a little bit. I mean, there's a Mitt Romney app along with the Obama app. There is plenty of tweeting and posting on Google Plus and posting on Facebook and other social media channels from both sides, and so it's really exciting to see for someone like myself who's come from a technology background for so many years.

SIMON: Do you see social media platforms as being most effective as some kind of tool to reach people and change their minds or to simply confirm people who've already made up their minds?

SIEBERG: I think that it leans a little more towards the latter. However, there's a new study that just came out from Pew that looks at the fact that two-thirds of social media users are posting something political. And it's not necessarily following the candidates or simply liking something or plus wanting something that's aligned with their existing political beliefs. But it's an argument, it's a debate, it's, you know, sharing something and adding a comment to it.

You know, the earlier mention from Joe that people aren't necessarily consuming all of this from television, is certainly where we're headed. A lot of people have that second screen. They're maybe watching TV and they've got their tablet or their laptop or their smartphone. So it really gives an insight into how the candidates are connecting with voters, what their level of understanding is.

And, of course, you know, whenever we share this data, it's of interest to the media, but also to the campaigns.

SIMON: President Obama has about 20 times the number of followers on Twitter than Mitt Romney. Does a large Twitter following or Facebook following translate into votes?

SIEBERG: Well, I think that's the 64,000 question. And I think that if we look at this Pew study that says that two-thirds of social media users are posting something political, the concern is that social media and that kind of engagement replaces voting, that people feel like they've done their part in this sort of civic discourse by doing it online and that they don't go cast their ballot.

SIMON: Well, you have touched on, I guess, as a working reporter, I see as the essential question about this. Do people sometimes confuse a like for casting a vote?

SIEBERG: Well, I think maybe they do. I mean, I think that it sometimes can turn into a popularity contest. You know, in that same study, only about 20 to 21 percent of folks who are engaged in social media and use it in a political way actually follow the candidate. So that idea of plus-one-ing, or following or liking something, it's a much, much smaller percentage than what other folks are doing in terms of arguing or debating or sharing something.

And we're going to be really curious to see, coming out of this last debate, does this push people to vote? Did any of what was said change your mind? Does this mean that you're more engaged in the process? And social media can really have that impact and hopefully it does. I mean, I think that we're all seeing that that's where the world is headed.

SIMON: Daniel Sieberg from Google's Politics and Election team, speaking from New York. Thanks very much.

SIEBERG: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.