It would be the perfect media narrative. Barack Obama, a candidate molded in the image of a technocratic Millennial’s fantasy who had a Facebook profile way back in 2006, is losing in the social media theater to William Mittens Romney, who is an actual grandfather. So shocking it has to be true. Cue the contrarian articles and arbitrary data-parsing. There’s only one problem: the debate is totally irrelevant. It makes us feel good to talk about the importance of social media in the presidential election, because it makes us and our Tweets feel important, and while social media is integral to the strategies of campaigns in 2012, that strategy has very little to do with what any of us actually say.
Much of the media discourse surrounding social media in the presidential elections takes on a horse-race element, and so the measures of success come from the levels of social media “engagement,” a word with high levels of subjective meaning. Obama clearly has the edge in terms of audience, since his campaign built all the infrastructure four years ago (not just through Facebook and Twitter, but also through its very own platform), and since his base is much more likely to use social media heavily. The initial numbers bear out this discrepancy, what with Obama’s 30,600,000 Facebook fans to Romney’s 8,750,000; Obama’s 20,700,000 Twitter followers to Romney’s 1,330,000; and in what many experts and insiders say will prove the difference in this election, Obama’s 1,450,000 Instagram followers to Romney’s 42,700.
Indeed, the Obama campaign appears to have grabbed most of the social media/Internet-related headlines, what with the timely Twitpic that re-enacted a scene from Forrest Gump, or his surprise appearance at Reddit for an Ask Me Anything, while Romney seems to have only gotten attention for misspelling “America.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a media narrative without a “but wait” counter-narrative, and this one comes in the form of “Mitt Romney is actually beating Obama in social media, if not in numbers of fans then in engagement.” These stories spout other also meaningful numbers, such as the PTAT score or number of re-tweets. Sometimes, they will also point to Romney’s absolutely ingenious decision to sponsor search results for Barack Obama so that his beautiful face also shows up. That’s right, the basic foresight to purchase ad placement on Facebook counts as a strategy these days.
And while all the social media reports are of overwhelming scientific rigor, I would like to make my own very unscientific point here. Admittedly social media is a bit of an echo chamber, but in my experience, when people are talking about Mitt Romney on social media, it’s not in ways that the Romney campaign would necessarily appreciate. Indeed, the day of the 47% video was a very big day for Romney on social media.
All this chattering about the medium of the chattering class might lead one to believe that the content of said chattering is important, but political campaigns are like a business, which means that the campaign isn’t driven by the content, the content is driven by the campaign. Enter: Big Data and his sidekick, targeted advertising. The hulking monolith of servers that represents the nerve center of the Obama campaign’s digital strategy has been well documented. They house terabytes of data on over 170 million Americans, with a significant amount of that data gleaned through social media, or less innocently, through data mining. Here, campaign staffers process the data in order to design specifically targeted ads often back through those same channels. More than anything, these servers are the core of the Democratic electoral strategy for the foreseeable future, though Romney has also gotten in on the action, though in classic Romney style, he does it by outsourcing.
So wither the horse-race number crunching in the face of Big Data? None of these developments should surprise anyone given the current landscape of American electoral politics, but this distinction is worth bearing in mind, because the campaigns often pitch social media as the way for the masses to make their voices heard. Indeed, the campaigns are listening, but to what you click, not to what you say.