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Diplomacy in Action

Social Media and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections

Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project
Washington, DC
June 20, 2012

10:30 A.M. EDT


MR. RAINIE: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here. I’m very pleased to represent the Pew Charitable Trusts, our major funder. It’s this big American charity that gives us research money. We do a lot of national phone surveys looking at how people use technology, how it affects their social life. So we care a lot about how Americans are using technology to interact with politicians, with government agencies, and things like that. So today, I was going to talk a little bit about social networking sites and social media in particular, so Facebook and Twitter and how they have become important parts of the communications and mobilization system in American politics.

In our most recent surveys, we have found that half of Americans use social networking sites. If you only look at the Internet users, it’s two-thirds of the Internet users now use social networking sites. So it is not just an area that young people enjoy participating in. A lot of older Americans also now are participants in these sites. Thirty-five percent of the Americans who are 65 years old or older than 65 now use social networking sites. So it’s not just young people.

Also, in our most recent surveys, we’ve found that 15 percent of Internet users use Twitter. So it’s 66 percent of Internet users use Facebook and social networking sites, 15 percent use Twitter. So there’s a difference and a gap; it’s not everyone is using Twitter. And some American pundits have talked about this election being the Twitter election. This is a special way now that the political community is organizing itself and interacting with voters. There are a small number of people using Twitter; it’s not everyone. And Twitter is important for campaigns to communicate with journalists, with other elites, to share their message and perhaps mobilize other people. But it is not all of the population who are doing it.

Interestingly, in social networking sites, the population is getting older as more old people come onto the sites. In Twitter, the population is getting younger. At the beginning, Twitter was something that people in their 30s or their 40s were using. Now it’s 20-year-olds and even teenagers who are becoming a little bit more interested in Twitter. So there’s always change that we are seeing in these sites, and that holds true for political activity as well.

In these spaces, like a lot of other social spaces, Americans are not really doing lots of political work. When they’re using Facebook or when they are using Twitter, they’re interacting with their friends. They’re doing things that friends do with each other. They’re sharing stories and reactions and observations about the world, some of which relate to politics. But a lot of it has nothing to do with politics. I think one of the things that people mistakenly assume is that there’s just all of this political activity and all of this political chatter and all of this political mobilization that is taking place in these spaces. Some people do do that. But it’s not everyone. The way to think about them is maybe the way that politics is practiced in your countries. Some people really, really care about it, and lots of people probably don’t care that much, and they talk about other things. That’s true of America as well.

So when we’ve asked people about what’s happening on their – in their social networking sites, we find that 39 percent of social network site users – 39 percent – see their friends talking about politics. So it’s not everyone who’s talking about it. And 19 percent talk about politics themselves. They share their own political stories, they interact with politicians, they are trying to get other people interested in the campaign. So again, it’s not everybody in America who’s doing these things and it’s not even everybody in America who cares about politics.

One of the most interesting things we’ve seen is that the more people care about politics, the more engaged they are, the more likely it is that they’re talking about politics and social networking sites and Twitter, and the more that they are organizing their social networks around politics. If you really, really care about President Obama or you really, really care about the Republican nominee Mitt Romney, you will spend a lot of time talking about politics on these sites. And the people who do that are more likely than others to say to their friends, “I hope you will care about the same politics that I do.” If they see that their friends are creating material or posting observations on Facebook or on Twitter, they sometimes say, “I want you to agree with me.” So they will get into discussions and sometimes even arguments about it. So the people who care a lot about politics are engaging and they are sharing material in their networks that affects what happens in their networks.

We’ve found that 18 percent of social network users have gotten rid of someone in their network because that person talks too much about politics or talks about politics in a way that doesn’t agree with the user. So it’s not everyone, but it’s 18 percent. Sixteen percent of social network users have introduced someone to their networks after they saw that that person was compatible with them, that that person posted material that agreed with my point of view, so I’m going to add that person to a network. So 18 percent have gotten rid of people, 16 percent have added people. So there are some people who are structuring their networks around politics, and we see the campaigns trying to address some of that.

I will end with the observation that in 2008 – we have been doing our research since 2000, so every two years there’s an election here, and we look at how people use the Internet and now their mobile phones for politics. And in 2008, it was the first time, in our observation, that the Internet itself and social networks in particular became a central part of the campaign communications story. Obviously, the Obama campaign spent a lot of time thinking about how young people use technology and how to organize the campaign exploiting young people’s interests in these new kinds of websites and these new kinds of applications that people were using.

This was the first time that we’d ever seen the political class in America basically say the Internet matters. In the previous campaigns, the Internet was sort of something that sat on the side of their life; they cared about what happened on television, they cared about what happened in newspapers, they cared about what happened on radio. And the Internet was sort of interesting, but it was off to the side and perceived to be not quite as important as those other communications channels.

In 2008, that changed. And the campaigns introduced Internet strategies and very aggressive ways to deal with voters basically saying that the Internet matters as much as those other communications channels. Now, a majority of Americans use the Internet, use their cell phones, use social networking websites to interact in politics. And so the campaigns know that this is the place where they can engage with voters with new strategies. They don’t – they use different strategies on the Internet than they use on some of those other channels. And that’s been interesting to see how they’ve incorporated special Internet strategies into their campaigns.

So we are monitoring this work now in the campaign. Obviously, both campaigns are very interested at the presidential level in using new technologies to try to understand voters, try to appeal to voters, try to get people to talk to their friends about the campaigns. And so we will actually see an increase, probably, in all of the measures that we take about the role of the Internet in politics. There will be more activity in 2012 than there was in 2008. And in 2008, we saw that there was more activity than there had been in 2004.

So the story of the role of the Internet in politics is one that continues to grow and continues to be very dynamic. It is not just a fixed story. So I will stop with my remarks there and entertain your questions.

MODERATOR: Please wait for the microphone to be given by one of my colleagues. Identify yourself by name and media outlet. We’ll start over here on the right, please.

QUESTION: Good morning. My name is Dagmar Benesova. I am from World Business Press Online news agency. Thank you for coming and sharing this information with us. Well, my question is: According to the information you gave to us, what do you think – how far the media, social media, can influence the results of the 2012 presidential elections? And when perceiving both candidates, or Mr. – President Obama and Mr. Romney – who can get the better advantage of social media for their outcome? Thank you very much.

MR. RAINIE: And thank you for your question. The most important thing that we see in our data is that the Internet strategy and social media strategies now are very tightly integrated with all of the other communications strategies of the campaign. So it’s very hard from a research perspective to isolate one of those channels and to say this channel amounted to this much difference and TV amounted to that much difference and newspapers had this much difference, since it’s so tightly integrated and since most American news consumers also use many different channels. They don’t just rely on one platform to give them information. They’re getting information from lots of different sources.

So it’s hard to say what the largest impact will be. One of the interesting things that we saw that changed between 2008 and 2010 is that in 2008, the Obama campaign, and Democrats in general, were very enthusiastic about the Internet and social media. They were much more aggressive in using those tools. They had more staff dedicated to reporting on their activities using those tools. And so when we asked voters at the end of the campaign, “Did this matter to you,” more Democrats, and particularly young people, were saying that they were enthusiastic about the role of the Internet and especially were influenced by the way that the social media strategies by the Obama campaign played out in their lives.

In 2010, the situation had changed. Republicans were more enthusiastic about social media and were more aggressive and were more likely to report that it was a meaningful channel to them. So one of the lessons that I think that we’ve learned in observing this change is that the Internet is particularly good for those who don’t have all the power. It’s an extra channel that they can use to complain, to try to rally the people that support their point of view.

So in 2008, that was the Democrats. They did not control the White House. In 2010, it was the Republicans because the Democrats controlled the White House. And so in this campaign, both campaigns are trying very hard to use these media. I think the Obama campaign would like to think that it is the most aggressive and the most wise about how to use these things, but it’s not entirely clear yet which is doing the best job in reaching their supporters.


MODERATOR: Looks like we have a follow-up.

MR. RAINIE: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Can I have just a verification question? It’s not 2010, but ’12. You mentioned --

MR. RAINIE: No, in 2010 in the midterm elections --

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Thank you.

MR. RAINIE: -- so it’s not the presidential election – so after that election, we saw that Republicans were very excited about the Internet compared to 2008. Now, since there’s been more activity in the Republican Party, just more primaries, more caucuses, there’s probably more social media commentary and social media activity around a Republican campaign because the Democratic nomination is not a contest.

So we will now get a much better idea as we move forward about which campaign is sort of registering the most people and getting the most sort of feedback on its ideas.

Other questions?

MODERATOR: We have a question on the right as well.

QUESTION: Hi. Nancy Ku from Fuji TV. It’s a Japanese TV network. I have two questions. One is: Do you have data about what percentage of voters are following Facebook pages or Twitter feeds of the candidates or campaign-related pages?


QUESTION: And second question is: You mentioned that the campaigns use different strategies online than they do in other mediums, so can you talk about each of the candidates – and perhaps each of the candidates’ spouses, too – and what kind of strategies you see they’re using on their Facebook page or their Twitter feeds?

MR. RAINIE: Sure. The data on people who follow campaigns or who have friended campaigns in Facebook is relatively small. It’s less than 6 or 7 percent of social network users have actually friended any kind of candidate, not just these two, even though that’s still thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of followers. It’s not a small number if you add up all the people who are doing it, but as a percentage of the population it’s not very big.

The different character of the Internet compared to other channels is reflected in sort of lots of commentary about the Internet – the Internet is two-way. It’s about people talking to each other and talking back to those in power. So the campaigns that have done particularly well in social media are campaigns that share material and solicit feedback, and not just pushing out material but are those that the voters tell us that they like that they can talk to candidates in these forums. They like that these are ways for them to have direct access to candidates rather than – or campaigns – rather than through more formal media channels.

What I’ve read and heard about the Obama campaign is that they are trying to integrate lots of other data about what people think about, what they buy, what they care about, what their policy positions are, a little bit about their networks and things like that. But it’s not entirely clear yet that there is a deeply distinct way that democrats are going after voters and the Republicans are going after voters.

Republicans in the past have been a little less connected to the two-way side of the conversation. They’re very interested in the Internet and social media for pushing out their message and for encouraging people to pass it along to their friends. Democrats were a little bit more interested in not only pushing out information but also having feedback and interactions with voters. And I think that there’s some possibility that difference might show up again in this campaign, but it’s – we’re still in the very early stages of seeing what their full Internet strategy is going to be.

MODERATOR: All right. Do we have a question on the left?

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Tracy (ph) from the Singapore Straits Times. I’m just wondering whether you’ve had any information about the particular demographics that some of these social media campaigns reach out to like younger people, age group, ethnicity, whatever. And also, you talked about how it’s difficult to say whether the social media campaigns translates into wins at the poll or – but can you say generally about how this extra dimension of reaching out to voters has changed the landscape of the race?

MR. RAINIE: It has changed the landscape of the race. I’ll take your second question first. It has changed the landscape of the race in the sense of making a lot more material about the campaign available directly to voters. And one of the things that Americans tell us in our surveys that they really like about social media campaigns or the Internet in general is that they feel like they are more connected directly to the candidate and to the campaign organization.

Many of them say they also appreciate that they feel kind of like insiders. If they signed up for text message alerts or if they signed up for feeds from the candidates Twitters accounts, they just feel like they’re in the know, like they’re in the campaign room – in the war room with some of the operatives, and it makes them a little bit more energized to go out and talk to their friends about the campaign and to promote the ideas of the campaign. So there are ways that Americans do say that they – that this has a special way of connecting them to the candidates.

On the demographics question, one of the striking things about the way campaigns are operating is that they very much segment their messages. They know who in their audience, not only the demographic characteristics – who’s old, who’s young, who’s a man, who’s a woman, who lives in one part of the country or another part of the country, what their ethnic or racial background is – but they also know what issues those people care about. They’ve asked them. They’ve asked for feedback; they’ve road tested ideas sometimes with those candidates. So there’s a lot of segmentation of social media strategies that’s tailored very directly to the policy interests or the community interests that people have already expressed to the campaign.

So it’s not just a demographics story; although, most candidates think that if they use the Internet well, it’s going to help them with young people. That’s the main motive that they have to try to use these channels particularly well. But there are also ways now that they see that this keeps volunteers interested. This attracts people to be donors to the campaigns. There is a lot of effort put into fund raising online. And so besides demographics, issues and other sort of things that are going on in their head are also part of their understanding of the voters that they’re trying to reach.


QUESTION: All right. Just to follow up. So in terms of the segmenting of the message, do you find that the social media messages are edgier or – I mean, ads of – the TV ads are very quite negative. They kind of attack the other opponent. But what about for the social media messages? Are they edgier? Are they more detailed? Or do you sense like a distinct character?

MR. RAINIE: That’s a great question and it’s – we don’t do quite that level of content analysis, but my sort of sense of reading a lot of them and observing and actually being a recipient of a lot of them is it’s not so much edgier as much as, “We know that you care about this particular aspect of life. Just so you know, the President spoke about this, or the First Lady recently spoke about this, or Bill Clinton might have spoken about this.” So they’re just making sure that they’re – touch point with you, that they are alerting you to things that they know matter to you. And they obviously couldn’t do that level of customization in their television buys or in their radio or TV or newspaper buys.

MODERATOR: We have a question here on the left.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Kathleen Gomes from the Portuguese daily newspaper Publico. I was wondering – you mentioned that there’s more political and campaign-related activity on the Internet and the networking sites today has – when compared to 2008. But I was wondering, how successful do you expect them to be today? Because I seem to note that there’s a little sort of fatigue or weariness. Jon Stewart has mentioned that now every email that he gets from Obama, he’s just asking for money. So I was wondering if you have any – in your surveys, do you ask people about this, how engaged they are actually?

MR. RAINIE: The engagement is kind of what I was trying to describe before. Some people are really into it and really like it and can’t get enough information. Most people do have a much more occasional hope that they will get political information, and they’re only mildly interested – sometimes even disinterested – in politics. So they don’t want a lot of communication. We haven’t gotten enough data to know whether their fatigue has set in. People have reported in the past – there have been lots of studies about the level of television advertisements as election day comes near and how people feel anesthetized. They’re just tired of that volume of political chatter and it’s hard for them to sort out one candidate from another, one position from another. That might happen for some people in social media too, but we haven’t yet seen it in our data.

We have seen that the amount of growth of young people on these sites has begun to level off. There’s not the same level of growth as the past, and it’s partly because so many young people are already on these sites there can’t be that much growth. And the fastest growth rates are people over age 50, and there is some data from other organizations that talk specifically about older women being among the fastest adopters now of social media sites.

So there are ways which people get tired of too much messaging, but there are also ways that that sort of stokes up the volunteers and keeps the most energetic people and most enthusiastic people feeling very connected to the campaign.

MODERATOR: Do we have any final questions? If we don’t, then I’d like to thank Mr. Rainie once again for coming from Pew to be with us. Thank you all very much for being here.

Hang on just one second. We might have one question from New York.

QUESTION: Sorry about that.

MODERATOR: New York, go ahead.

QUESTION: Sorry about that. (Inaudible) Shimbun from Japan. You mentioned about Twitter being more attuned to journalists or elites, and could you go a bit further into how Facebook is used as opposed to that, and also if you’ve seen any difference with content on Twitter and Facebook? Could you possibly touch on that?

MR. RAINIE: There’s a general difference in the populations of Facebook and Twitter in their political activity. Twitter users are generally a bit more civically engaged. They are much more connected to the media culture as a whole, in part because it’s a more tight-knit group and some of the attraction of Twitter to many people is that it’s a place where there is lots of commentary about public life and lots of analysis of what’s going on in media culture. So there is that difference. Facebook people as an entire population are a little less interested in politics, a little more engaged with other things, and are less likely to be mixing it up over politics at any given moment.

And it’s not – I think the strategies that I’ve seen the campaigns use are somewhat reflective of the different sort of tone of content or tone of political discussion in those fields, but it’s not – there’s – both – all the campaigns are still sort of getting used to these spaces and getting used to figuring out what kind of messaging has the most power in them.

There was a little bit of a – at the beginning of your question, I think there was something else that you were hoping I would answer. Can you remind me?

QUESTION: Sorry. You mentioned that Twitter was more attuned to, say, regional journalists or more elite people, and I was just asking how Facebook differs from that from the campaigns’ point of view.

MR. RAINIE: One of the striking things that our colleagues have seen in their analysis of how people use social media is that right now at the campaigns it’s really a – these are communications channels – actually both of them, Facebook as well as Twitter – for dealing with people who are already enthusiastic about the campaign and already deeply engaged with the campaign. It’s – they hope that those people will then pass along their enthusiasm, pass along their recommendations to their friends. But by and large, the campaigns internally see these channels as ways to engage with the people who are already part of a team and already enthusiastic about the race and already willing to volunteer, already maybe have given a donation in the past.

And so the notion that social media, particularly at this stage of the campaign, is converting people, is a place where lots of sort of undecided voters or lots of unsure voters are making up their minds, that’s not what’s happening at this stage of the race. Probably later on in the campaign, it will make a difference. But again, most people, when you ask them about impact – where did you learn the information that made you decide how you were going to vote, or why did you change your mind on something like this – most people cannot unpack where that happens. They’re so – we’re all swimming in seas of information that come from a whole variety of platforms and channels, and it’s the accumulation of all of that information rather than one particular channel and one particular way that seems to be what’s driving how people think about politics.

MODERATOR: All right. And with that, the event’s now concluded. Thank you all very much for your attendance. Thank you once again, Mr. Rainie.

MR. RAINIE: Thank you.

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