Social Media Play Bigger Role In Election, But Effectiveness Is In Question

By Queenie Wong
The Mercury News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Despite the popularity of social media, some voters are skeptical about the information they read on facebook, twitter and other platforms. Some political scientists question how effective the flurries of text, photos and videos are at attracting or swaying undecided voters.

The Mercury News

Republican Donald Trump wants to #LockHerUp. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s supporters are standing their ground days before the election, declaring #ImWithHer.

More than in any previous presidential election, experts say, social media are playing a key role in the fight for voters’ hearts and minds.

Town halls and rallies are still important, but the front lines in the battle for the White House are shifting as more people get their news on social media.

“Social media is more of a doorway to the rest of the campaign. You get your hard-core supporters to follow you on Twitter and Facebook, and the goal from that point is to get them to share your stuff with their friends,” said Laura Olin, who was the social media director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and is now a marketing consultant for Precision Strategies. “A message they get from their friend is more compelling than a message they would get from a campaign.”

From January to October, 109 million Americans on Facebook generated 5.3 billion likes, posts, comments and shares about the election, according to the company. Campaigns are also tapping into the audiences on Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn and other sites.

But voters are skeptical about the information they read on social media, and some political scientists question how effective the flurries of text, photos and videos are at attracting swaying undecided voters. When discussing politics with people share their views, about 59 percent of social media users found it stressful and frustrating, while only 35 percent found it interesting and informative, a recent Pew survey found.

Some voters, such actress Kristina Teves of San Ramon, Calif., try to stay away from sharing their political thoughts on Facebook because the conversations get too heated, especially among family and friends.

“I feel like we’ve turned our democracy into some sort of sporting event, where you pick your team and even if they’re losing, you want to support them,” said Teves, who grew up in a conservative family but is voting for Clinton.

After seeing a clip of Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention on Facebook, though, Teves couldn’t stay silent any longer. “When they go low, we go high,” Obama said, after referencing “hateful language” from public figures on television.

The remarks resonated with how Teves felt about all the partisan bickering, so she posted publicly about how voters should “check your sources, keep an open mind before you angrily shout into the void and remember to respect everyone regardless of their opinion.”

Some voters say they’re taking social media posts with a grain of salt, raising questions about whether candidates’ messages are getting lost in the din.

“I feel like there’s a little bit of disillusionment that has crept in,” said Steven Weber, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information and Department of Political Science. “We expect people to spend too much time reading what they already agree with. We expect crazy tweet storms that very few people pay serious attention to other than when they’re absurd and make people angry.”

Nonetheless, Trump’s barrage of late-night tweets has shaped the campaign in ways previously unseen in a U.S. presidential election. His controversial post suggesting former Miss Universe Alicia Machado appeared in a sex video was brought up during the second presidential debate, where Trump was asked if the tweet demonstrated the discipline of a good leader.

“Tweeting happens to be a modern-day form of communication,” Trump said. “I mean, you can like it or not like it.”

But it’s not just words that are grabbing voters’ attention. More social media users have been watching recorded and live video on websites, giving candidates opportunities to interact with voters in ways they haven’t in previous election cycles. Twitter and Facebook live-streamed the presidential debates.

Don Seymour, Facebook’s U.S. politics and government outreach manager, said campaigns are doing a lot more on social media than in the past.

“Today, the people who use Facebook successfully or see the best results are folks who use it as a platform to connect with voters and actually have more of a two-way conversation,” said Seymour, who was a communications director for House Speaker John Boehner.

Candidates have used Facebook to broadcast rallies live, show behind-the-scenes video, showcase endorsements from other politicians, conduct Q&As and raise money. Trump’s campaign recently launched a nightly news program on Facebook Live, including a link to donate money.

Twitter and Facebook have been trying to boost voter turnout. Twitter users who sent a direct message to (at)gov with their ZIP codes got their state’s voter registration deadline and a link to register. Facebook also started reminding U.S. users 18 years and older to register to vote, which helped more than 2 million users do so, the company said.

Social media have cast the public spotlight on the opinion of some voters, such as photographer Brandon Stanton, who wrote one of the most shared posts in Facebook’s history when he posted a letter to Trump, and Ken Bone, the undecided voter who became an internet sensation after asking a question on energy policy during the second presidential debate.

Still, stories like Bone’s and Stanton’s are rare, and some local voters choose to keep quiet while others can’t resist giving their two cents.

San Jose resident Landon Kupfer hasn’t decided who he’s going to vote for but is leaning toward Trump after learning about his policies. Kupfer, who refrains from talking politics on Facebook, watches live videos of the candidate’s rallies but chooses not to comment.

“With all the thousands of comments they have posted every second … I don’t feel like my voice will be heard until I cast my vote,” he said.

Kevin Seal of Castro Valley resident, a Clinton supporter, is active on Twitter and Facebook. “There are times when I’ll try to bite my lip and not say anything, “but I have a difficult time restraining myself,” ” he said.

Seal also admits he’s probably not swaying any votes with his social media comments.

“I honestly don’t think I’m convincing anyone of anything,” he said. “I don’t think it’s really my intent. I think it’s searching for community and fellowship in a way.”

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