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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Effects of Social Media in Campaigns

Ellyn Angelotti, Poynter Institute
Tampa, Florida
August 28, 2012

3:00 P.M. EDT


MS. ANGELOTTI: Hi, everybody. Thank you for having me. And I want this to be an opportunity for you to ask any questions you have about reporting in the digital age, social media, trends that we’re seeing in American journalism or in social media in general. So as you have questions, raise your hand and I’ll be sure to call on you. I’ll start off just with a few talking points, starting off very generally and then getting specifically into what we’re seeing with the election and the campaigns this year.

So one of the biggest changes in trends that we’ve seen over the past decade or so has been this culture of passive publication. So we’re used to people reading, watching, listening to the news that we create, and we’re used to the publishing – and publishing our stories or publishing whatever we’re writing being the last step. And what we’ve seen because of social media and online journalism is that publishing is no longer the last step. It’s more like the first step. And what’s even more important is what happens after the story is published, so how do we engage our audience with content we create, and how do we engage people throughout the storytelling process?

With this has presented a lot of challenges. Before, we used to know exactly when and how our audiences consumed news. People would listen to the radio on their way to work, they’d come home, watch the 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 10 o’clock news, get their newspaper first thing in the morning. And now, news is constant, which presents some ethical challenges and logistical challenges. So how do we reach people where they are? So whether they’re using their mobile device or whether they still are watching the news on TV or reading it in the newspaper, how do we still utilize our legacy media and augment it with social media and online journalism? Also, how do we balance the pressure point of being the first, being immediate with our news, with also being accurate?

One of the best case studies of this was when [Arizona Congresswoman] Gabby Giffords was shot about a year ago, and what happened is that we have news organizations that our audiences trust, so we had reputable news organizations reporting that not only had she been shot, but that she had died, when in fact that information wasn’t true. So it was more important in that situation for the news organizations, they thought, to get the story out first without – but to the detriment of accuracy. So from situations like that, whenever we see a breaking news story, as you guys have seen whenever there’s a weather – a natural disaster, a hurricane, a volcano, an earthquake – how can we make sure people who are covering stories like this are communicating truthful information, accurate information, and doing it in a quick way that makes it as relevant as it needs to be? That’s one of the challenges.

Another challenge is – and an opportunity happens to be from a critical thinking perspective. So we have access to more viewpoints than ever before. So when I say critical thinking, I mean having multiple perspectives, being able to suspend judgment, being able to identify motivation and biases. And with social media, we have opportunities to think critically because we can connect with people all over the world and connect with news all over the world. At the same time, because we can make those choices, a lot of the times, we choose perspectives or choose to listen to voices that reinforce our own values, our own beliefs, and it’s much easier – the path of least resistance is to go to those sources and not to challenge the way that we think and maybe follow somebody on Twitter that might think differently or maybe a news organization that presents viewpoints that differ for our own.

Also, suspending judgment; because we do want information right now, immediately, it’s really hard to pause when it comes to social media. It’s really hard to pause and ask, “Is that photo really of Tropical Storm Isaac? Is that photo or is that video true? Or was that something that was manipulated with all of the great technologies we have available to us now?” So the opportunities and challenges associated with both having access to multiple perspectives and suspending judgment both help us and challenge us when we’re trying to think critically in social media.

And also, because people can be as transparent as they would like on social media, we do have a better sense of people’s biases, people’s motivations. But at the same time, with a quick Google search, you can find out anything you want to know about anybody. At the same time, a lot of the times, people want – choose to hide behind cloaks of anonymity or maybe say things about themselves that aren’t true. And without journalists there, without people out there to hold them accountable, it can be a challenge to understand what a publisher’s true motivation is. So there are opportunities and challenges associated with all three of these aspects of critical thinking.

Probably the biggest thing – and this is something that I’m sure you’ll witness, especially during this election cycle – is the changing role of the journalist. And the changing role of the journalist is not just that of a reporter, not just that of somebody who tells the stories, but is also that of a sense maker – so somebody who can identify what the story really is, see all the information coming through the floodgates, whether it be in social media or online or through traditional media, and be able to synthesize and say what is most important, what information does the audience really need to know, what is news. And that’s something that is not just important for journalists and journalism, but it’s important for democracy.

And so that’s what’s been really important, seeing how not just news organizations are publishers anymore. We’re seeing candidates. We’re seeing all kinds of politicians and people within the government having the ability to directly publish to the public. And that relationship and that area between journalism and these direct publishers is where it really gets interesting and where that’s – that’s what we’re really starting to see develop, especially during this elections cycle.

So those are just a few talking points or ideas I had prepared for you all about social media, the state of social media and journalism, especially how it concerns the campaigns and the election. And I want to give you the opportunity to ask any questions you have about social media, journalism in general, anything about media or digital trends.

In the yellow shirt. We have a microphone coming towards you. And go ahead and say your name and what news organization you’re with.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m from the Times of India. Specific to this convention, do we have a sense of how many people are following it through social media? And do you think that, overall, the media audience has overtaken television audience in this country? Can you throw out some numbers at us?

MS. ANGELOTTI: I don’t have any specific numbers right now, just because with the convention just starting a little bit ago I’m not sure. But the great thing about social media is that we do have the direct access to those analytics, so what’s really interesting is how you could measure that. So would you measure it by the number of people following the RNC account, or would you want to judge that by the number of people using the hashtag? I would say the social media audience – I would predict that it’s going to be much larger than the television audience for this election cycle. I think we saw it pretty competitive in the last election cycle. But if the trend continues, we would see that.

I think what’s really interesting is how social networks like Facebook and Twitter are uniting with news organizations to track that. So Facebook, for example, is tracking the number of mentions per candidate and being able to see that on a daily basis so you can compare how many people are mentioning Barack Obama on Facebook compared to Mitt Romney. And that’s been kind of one of the indicators about the tenor or the conversations that are happening on social media. So I don’t have specific numbers, but I do see that news organizations find value in how people are engaging with people on social – engaging about the RNC, the DNC, and the campaigns on social media, and they’re finding ways to track it.

QUESTION: And between Democrats and Republicans, do we have a sense of which party is more active on social media? What are the metrics you use to measure this?

MS. ANGELOTTI: It’s so interesting because I saw a report recently about depending on which network you are, it gave you a sense of if you were a Democrat or a Republican. So I think Twitter was more likely to be Democrats, Pinterest was more likely to be Republicans, I think. But it’s all – it’s somewhat subjective. I think it’s really hard to hammer down. Even though you have so much specific information about followers and how many people are talking about a certain topic, the depth of that information isn’t what we’re used to as journalists.

And so the biggest challenge I see with news organizations and organizations in general that are really trying to see what impact social media has on their return on investment or their audience engagement, it’s more than just looking at how many Twitter followers you have or how many Facebook fans you have, but it’s having a clear sense of what your values are as an organization, what your objectives are for using social media, and then how social media is a vehicle for attaining those. So it’s more like a recipe for indicating your influence rather than one metric in particular that indicates how many people are interested in your candidate, your news organization, or your brand.

We have a question right here.

QUESTION: Hello. I’m from Asahi Shimbun. Obviously, there’s all these social media trends and whatnot. They’re overtaking journalism at a very quick speed. But particularly with the election and the campaign, is there any trends that particularly stand out or are different from normal trends that are undergoing in journalism? Do you see anything there?

MS. ANGELOTTI: I think one of the biggest trends that’s unique from journalism is how candidates choose to moderate social media, or attempt to moderate, to varying degrees of success. We saw this during the last election cycle. Sarah Palin’s page, she was kind of infamous for going on and deleting comments that were not in agreement or were critical of her. In journalism, we tend to want to empower everybody to express all viewpoints and be able to – both critical and supportive. I think the biggest challenge and the biggest distinction between journalism and what we see in campaigns is the attempts to kind of regulate or curate or moderate these conversations, and ethically, what do we want to do as journalists and how do we want to facilitate conversations on social media and how those ethics are different for candidates.

And a little bit more on that: What we’ve seen is the more you try to regulate speech – whether, I mean, it be protestors blocking Kennedy or people who are trying to tweet or publish tweets or YouTube videos at the Arab Springs – the more you regulate that, the more people are going to find creative solutions. So information, it’s like it’s stuck in a balloon, and people are going to find a way to poke a hole in that balloon. And if you try to tape up that hole and prevent the air from getting out, they’re going to find another way to poke it. There’s going to be a way to get the information out with social media now. So it just makes the – your audience get more creative. So it’s more of a way to – you want to actively engage both your critics and your supporters, and that’s something that can be more of a challenge for candidates than maybe necessarily news organizations.

We have a question up front over here.

QUESTION: Thomas Gorguissian, Tahrir, Egyptian daily newspaper. My question is related to the use or the abuse of social media by politics. (Inaudible) I mean, simply because you are talking about as a media, it was in the age of, let’s say, journalism and then after that, television to a certain extent, certain time used by professionals. Now everybody’s using social media. And especially when you say information, we don’t know if it’s information or lies or propaganda. So how you can – I’m not saying control or manage or tame; I’m trying to say how you evaluate or what is done it by social media specialists, let’s call it, to professionalize this thing?

And second question related to it: If you call it social media or social journalism or social media journalism, in the coming years, what you are going to teach in profession, because everybody is doing it. My kids are doing it and the other kids is doing it the same way. And nobody is – now even knows if there is a new rule to report or not report. I mean, just these few thoughts, if you have any idea about these things. Thank you.

MS. ANGELOTTI: Sure. Well, I think to your first question, and it kinds of builds to your second question too, the thing that is most important and that’s missing a lot of the times in social media is context. We don’t always know who the information’s coming from, or we might have their Twitter handle or their email address, but we don’t really know who that source is. We, a lot of times, miss that face-to-face interaction that we really got with shoe-to-leather journalism. So one of the things we are missing is context, and so one of the things I think journalism needs to add or should be adding more especially – and we’re seeing this in some capacities – is the ability to fact-check, to verify, to add that level of critical thinking I mentioned, to add that context that we’re missing. So when you mentioned – ask, what will the next generation of journalists, they won’t necessarily be reporting the same way that maybe you all are reporting right now.

At the same time, the skills are still going to be the same. We’re still going to be – need people who can effectively communicate and help make sense of the world that’s going on around them. We’re still going to need people who have that sense of news judgment, know how to add that context, know how to ask the tough questions that hold sources accountable, hold government accountable.

So it comes back to journalistic ethics, journalistic values, and those are the things that are going to be even more important to learn. I think at the same time, the next generation is going to be much more tech savvy than even our young generation now. They’re not going to need to learn how to Tweet or learn how to use Facebook. That’s all going to be second nature just as interviewing somebody or maybe writing is second nature to certain people now.

So I think we’re going to need to teach a lot more of the traditional skills and make sure those don’t go by the wayside even though the technology continues to change. So even though the role and maybe the title of journalist might change, the skills still stay the same. We still need quality writing; we still need quality editing. We still need people who know how to have news judgment, know how to make context out of important stories, how to tell important stories, and how to, most importantly, find important stories among the mass of information out there.

I see a hand in the back, or no. They’re on the phone. One that had the one question back there in the blue shirt.

QUESTION: I'm from the Hindu. I came in a bit late, so forgive me if you addressed this in the beginning, but the previous election saw the use of social media in a big way, and particularly President Obama was credited with bringing out millennium voters and appealing to different groups using that. What do you see as the sort of big thing for social media that’s happening in this campaign, and how is going to change the way it happens in the future?

MS. ANGELOTTI: I think it’s much more integrated in this election cycle. In 2008, it was news that Obama was reaching these new audiences on this Facebook that the kids were using. And that was kind of the story. It’s been four years; social media’s much more ubiquitous. It’s not – and that’s not the headline anymore. The headline is now, okay, we saw how somebody harnessed this tool very effectively to win an election. Now it’s almost mandatory that you’re able to have some sort of social media strategy or capabilities to engage with people on social media. Because if you’re not engaging with them, they’re going to be engaging without you anyway, and it’s better if you’re there at the party because then they’re more likely going to be constructively with you than without you there.

So the big story, I think, with this election cycle, because you’ve already seen one and we’ve seen how social media can play a role, is that it’s much more integrated and it’s much more thoughtful. So we’re seeing how – we’re seeing four years of strategy go into the process of creating a campaign.

We have a lot of people who work with candidates on their strategy – simply on their social media strategy. So you have completely changing how a candidate thinks about their approach to getting elected, maintaining support after they’re elected, getting financial support, being able to publicize their platform and their ideas, being able to respond to criticism or events that – gaffes that might not put them in the most positive light. So handling these social media crises I think is really important in being able to respond to those deftly.

At the same time, we’re also seeing that the social media companies themselves are aware of their potential and the way that they are adapting their platform, wanting to work with the candidates specifically, wanting to work with news organizations in partnerships. So we’re seeing this from not just the candidates’ perspective and not just the news organizations’ perspective, but from the social media giants’ perspectives, too, because they understand that they have an important role in this, that they know that they just have the platform, the other people out there have the content or skills in other ways. So it’s definitely more of a collaborative team approach, which is something that we see a lot different – that’s a lot different than traditional journalism. In traditional journalism, it was all about who gets the credit for the story, who gets the scoop. In social media, it’s more of an open source, collaborative, I can bring this to the table if you can bring this to the table and then everybody gets better, ideally. So that’s what we’re starting to see with this election.

Any other questions? I can also stick around for one on one questions if you have those too.

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