Twitter Deputizes Millions of Pundits During Political Conventions
Gone are the days when politicians could sleep easy if their convention speeches pleased newspaper columnists and TV's talking heads. Now, they also need Facebook "likes" and Twitter "retweets" from millions of followers.
Social-media prowess is on display during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week, as it was at the Republican gathering last week in Tampa, Fla. The dominant platforms, Twitter and Facebook, are hosting events and keeping track of who's up and who's down, socially speaking.
"We're measuring in real-time conversations that used to only take place at coffee shops and water coolers," said Adam Sharp, Twitter's head of government, news and social innovation.
Four years ago, the term "social media" wasn't widely used. On Election Day in 2008, there were 1.8 million tweets; now that many tweets are sent every six minutes, said Rachael Horwitz, a Twitter spokeswoman. In 2008, Facebook was popular mostly among college students. This year, there are more than 110,000 political Facebook pages in the U.S. and 11,000 pages for politicians, said Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy and communication for Facebook.
Most candidates also use blog network Tumblr, photo-sharing site Instagram and niche web venues such as Pinterest to spread their messages.
"This will be, without a doubt, the most socially connected election season ever," said Joe Green, president and co-founder of NationBuilder. The Los Angeles-based company helps campaigns organize their online presence. "Democracy in its most basic form is really about mobilization of the masses, and that is what social media enables at the grassroots level."
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are spending millions of dollars to advertise online, including placed media on Facebook and Twitter. Last week, Romney's team became the first political campaign to purchase a "trending topic" on Twitter, ensuring that his message would pop up prominently in the social network's stream.
The presidential candidates' campaigns have digital strategists on their payrolls and also work with firms such as Targeted Victory (which helps Republicans), and its Democratic counterpart, Blue State Digital.
When Obama takes the stage in Charlotte Sept. 6, he will essentially have 19 million potential publicists to spread his message. That's how many Twitter followers he has, making his account the sixth most popular in the world -- behind stars such as Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.
Led by Obama and his 2008 technology team, Democrats have dominated social media. Yet Republicans, in many ways, are now "on equal footing," said Katie Harbath, a Facebook public policy manager and liaison to Republicans. Romney has more than 1 million Twitter followers and, like Obama, multiple Facebook pages.
Last week, Romney had more than 2 million people posting about him on Facebook -- at times more than Obama, Harbath said. She said Romney leveraged the convention to build his social-media base, gaining more than 1 million fans during the week. Romney got more juice on Twitter during his wife's speech than his own, Mr. Sharp said.
No one has touched Clint Eastwood.
The surprise Republican convention speaker spawned a Twitter tsunami when he addressed an empty chair as if it were Obama. The Obama campaign quickly posted a photo of the president in a chair and the message, "This seat's taken." As of Sept. 4, it had been retweeted more than 54,000 times -- the most activity of anyone during the Republican convention and the second most ever from Obama's account.
A spoof Twitter account, @InvisibleObama, featuring a picture of an empty chair, quickly popped up and now has more than 68,000 followers.
Taking extra steps
Politicians are taking extra steps on social media to highlight their activities during the conventions.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie started a special "Twitter handle" -- @ChristieKeynote -- that attracted 7,766 followers and featured backstage photos of himself. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin shared photos from the convention floor in Tampa with the 26,000-plus people who have "liked" her Facebook page.
Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan peaked during his speech, with about 6,000 tweets per minute when he spoke about his faith, and again when he spoke about government spending.
Twitter and Facebook are going one level deeper, measuring how well the presidential candidates are connecting with their audiences in addition to how often.
There's a daily "Twitter Political Index," which analyzes the 400 million tweets per day to discern how users feel about Obama and Romney. The social network has partnered with two polling firms and analytics company Topsy to validate data.
A score of 24, as Obama had Sept. 3, means that tweets about him are more positive than 24% of all other Twitter messages. Romney had a score of 14 the same day. Fifty or above is considered good, Mr. Sharp said.
More telling, though is movement from day to day, and both candidates' scores dropped Sept. 3 compared with the previous day. The trend line of improving or deteriorating sentiment closely follows the movement of Gallup poll approval ratings .
Through a partnership with CNN, Facebook is tracking sentiment about the candidates through the volume of Facebook activity about the election. The site, cnn.com/fbinsights, enables visitors to view trends by gender, state and age group.
Just as the politicians have adapted to social media, social media is adapting to politics: Twitter and Facebook both have employees roving throughout the conventions and have sponsored parties and events to raise their profile.