In raw social-media count, Mr. Paul has six times as many
Facebook followers as breakout success Rick Santorum, who only a
month ago had a meager Facebook presence of 42,147 followers. Mr.
Romney (1.5 million Facebook fans), the once-undisputed
front-runner, has had a stronger social-media presence than both
Messrs. Paul (869,362) and Santorum (149,610) combined yet lost the
last three primaries—in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.
In statistical parlance, the social-media universe is a biased
population: Active online users hold views unrepresentative of the
larger voting public. This is further corroborated by Google's
slick new election toolkit, which measures total search volume and
news mentions. News volume is a much more representative look at
the wider population, as many more citizens get their news online
than follow candidates on Facebook or Twitter. Using this tool,
both Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum had roughly equal news volume,
with Mr. Paul trailing both.
The Facebook politics team likes to think their website can
predict election results. In 2010, the Facebook Politics blog
boasted that "an early sample of some of the hottest House and
Senate races bodes well for the world's largest social-networking
site." It noted that 81% of the Senate candidates with more
Facebook fans had won their race. Yet 87% of incumbents in the
House won re-election that cycle. Incumbents are simply more
popular (and they have many opposition followers, who need to
follow the updates of a sitting representative).
In a key contest of 2010, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle vs.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, Facebook was wildly off. In late
October, Ms. Angle had a staggering seven times as many Facebook
fans as Mr. Reid (104,000 to 14,000), yet he snagged a comfortable
victory, 50% to 45%.
Thus, while it is tempting to believe that the size of a
candidate's online fan-base is significantly helpful in getting
elected, the numbers just don't add up.
On the internet, no one knows you didn't vote
So, why doesn't a social-media following translate into votes?
The internet is like a giant trade show: a cacophony of aggressive
marketers pushing strangers to read their pamphlets. People,
however, are far more responsive to personal messages and
face-to-face peer pressure.
In an experimental field study, Professors Alan Gerber and
Donald Green randomly chose 30,000 potential voters to receive
personal canvassing, direct mail or phone calls. Face-to-face
canvassing "substantially" increased turnout, while the impersonal
messaging of mail and calls had a much less successful effect. The
researchers concluded, "A certain segment of the electorate tends
not to vote unless encouraged to do so through face-to-face
Social networks, as a sea of unblinking avatars, do not exert
the same social pressure as direct human contact.
Eight years later, to further investigate their findings, Gerber
and his colleagues conducted a peer-pressure-enhanced version of
the direct-mail experiment by threatening to reveal to recipients'
neighbors whether or not they had voted. Direct mailings with
social pressure had a dramatic impact (an 8.1% increase) "The
difference between our intervention and mail used in previous
experiments is that ours harnesses one of the most-formidable
forces in social psychology, pressure to conform to social norms,"
the study said.
On Facebook, the closest thing to social pressure is a vote
counter appended to the top of the newsfeed on Election Day. While
this most likely has some positive effect, it certainly doesn't
pressure the legions of uninterested voters who can float by
anonymously without ever feeling the scrutiny for shirking their
Moreover, internet-specific evidence on the importance of
personalized messages was observed by New York University Professor
Sinan Aral, in a rare experimental study of Facebook-app adoption.
Aral found that personalized messages to friends asking them to try
out an app increased user adoption 98% vs. a generic broadcast
messaging through the newsfeed, and increased engagement by 7%.
Because Mr. Obama cannot personally message his 25 million fans,
his influence is limited to the faceless, soapbox shouting of a
Campaigners have yet to crack the code of translating digital
enthusiasm to offline action. For now, the influence of Facebook
and Twitter are confined to where they live: online.
Voting is so Generation X
Voting is not a social activity; privately casting a numerically
insignificant ballot in a sealed booth is not appealing to a
generation of hyperconnected content creators. "If you ask people
how could you affect politics and have an impact, voting is only
one of a whole variety of things, and it's fairly limited," says
University of California at Irvine Professor Russell Dalton, who
found an uptick in a young demographic of nonvoting citizens who
were more interested in boycotts than in voting or jury duty.
"Engaged" citizens, as he calls them, desire to be part of the
political process and eschew traditional notions of civic duty.
In other words, many of the most active young social-media fans
are the least likely to vote. "The Engaged Citizen is more likely
or as likely to do all kinds of participation, except voting," said
Mr. Dalton (though he tries to tell his students that not voting is
a mistake). Instead, his Engaged Citizens are pitching tents in
Occupy protests, sharing "I've Got a Crush on Obama" and
volunteering in their neighborhoods.
While this may be good for creating buzz around a new candidate,
which Mr. Obama was at the time, it doesn't translate into the
ultimate measure of a candidate's popularity: votes.
The internet is a v-ery important tool. Mr. Obama won not
because he had more Facebook fans but because he ceded
unprecedented control to his online followers. His team opened up
the voter file so that volunteers could make calls from home,
randomly selected low-dollar donors for a small dinner and created
tools for offline organizing. Despite the digital trailblazing in
2008, little innovation has taken place since, and most candidates,
especially the current crop of Republicans, merely recycle messages
from stump speeches into updates of less than 140 characters. The
potential of the internet lies in not who follows a candidate but
in how those followers are empowered.