How Important Is Twitter In Electoral Politics Now?
Some friends of mine are getting ready to launch a new endeavor, Sprokk, the next step in social media. In the most simplistic terms, it's like an audio version of Twitter and the potential seems unlimited. Lee Rogers, a tech-savvy physician and progressive candidate for Congress, was the first political figure to give them a message, which you can usually see on their home page beta. Let's hope Chuck Grassley never finds it. Meanwhile, Twitter has embedded itself firmly into the fabric of 21st century communications in general-- and political communications specifically. It may be all about 140 characters but I probably get as much as 80% of my breaking news from Twitter now. In his feature for Adweek last May, Charlie Warzel is clear: "Twitter," he writes, "has become a veritable particle accelerator for news cycles and political battles... It is, for better or worse, the center of the political conversation, and it is transforming the way political campaigns and those who cover them do business."
...Part of the reason for Twitter’s accelerated importance in the zeitgeist of political coverage stems from its stunning growth over the past three years. Last March, the company announced that it had achieved 140 million active users, up from 100 million last fall. Every day, Twitter hosts roughly 340 million new tweets.
To put that in perspective, it took Twitter three years, two months and one day to serve up 1 billion tweets; it now does that volume every three days. the New York Times’ David Carr likened Twitter to “a river of data.” Still others compare it to a violent gusher. Call it what you will: The tweets will flow with or without you.
This year’s presidential contest has already been pitched as the first truly digital election, despite the fact that politicos dubbed both the 2004 and 2008 elections as such. With each new election cycle comes proclamations about the latest technology’s impact. In 2004, it was the rise of the blogs. In 2008, CNN and many others asked whether that election would be won or lost on Facebook. This year, Twitter is home base to the political discourse, and journalists have set up shop to make sure they don’t miss a moment.
Take Ben Smith, the politically engaged editor in chief of the social site BuzzFeed. Smith averages 19.4 daily tweets and uses the information stream to stay in front of each day’s news cycle. For Smith and many like him, Twitter is more than a journalistic tool. “Twitter is not only driving the conversation, it is transforming the design of the modern newsroom,” he says.
But it isn’t just Smith and BuzzFeed that are doubling down on Twitter; newsrooms across the country have bent to the social network’s will. “It’s the best place right now to reach the central opinion makers and that conversation is really where you want to be,” says Smith.
For Ethan Klapper, social media editor, politics, for the Huffington Post, Twitter affords the 22-year-old a peculiar vantage point as he oversees the campaign trail far from the stump speeches and cross-country bus tours.
Klapper, like many young journalists, has been thrust into an elevated position due in part to his fluency monitoring the pulse of the chattering classes via the social medium.
“I often find myself getting home from work and opening up TweetDeck,” Klapper says. In fact, he rarely ventures far from the feed. “When it comes to the real-time news/debate element, Twitter reigns supreme,” the editor says.
...“People on Twitter like the drama of campaigns,” [Republican consultant Vincent] Harris says. “I think that’s why they’re on Twitter. I think they’d be bored if there wasn’t this constant chatter, and I think you’re going to continue seeing campaigns go to Twitter as a means to pick those fights.”
An increasingly hostile environment means more work for campaigns, always struggling to speed their reaction times and dominate the public opinion.
“In 1992, during the Clinton/Gore campaign, the idea of rapid response was responding within the news cycle,” Greenberger points out. “If you got hit at a morning news conference, you have to respond before the evening news. Rapid response is in real-time for the first time. So you have to adjust communications strategy accordingly. The velocity of this is new and it will take people time to adjust.”
With the general election all but officially begun, Zac Moffatt, digital director of the Romney campaign, doesn’t have time to adjust. Moffatt and his team are in unchartered digital territory, and Twitter is but one of their concerns.
Says Moffatt: “I definitely think Twitter has and will have a huge impact on this election, but it has to be recognized that, even with all the talk, even if you had the greatest Twitter strategy out there, I’m not sure you would win on that alone. In fact, I know you wouldn’t.”
...Greenberger tells those involved with campaigns that they must “be committed to tweeting and working on the platform.” Moffatt agrees that a successful Twitter strategy requires serious commitment.
“With the message, you have to make it timely and relevant,” Moffatt says. “If we put out a tweet, it can become the largest driver to our site, and it has become a huge point for us to engage with people.” That level of engagement comes with a price: Promoted trends run roughly $120,000 per day.
That’s hardly a bargain, but the payoff can be enormous. Besides its impact on messaging, Twitter is also becoming an important fundraising tool. “Twitter was a top eight referrer to the Gingrich campaign in terms of where money was being raised,” Harris reports. “For some of my other clients, it is an even more powerful fundraising tool than Facebook.”
Still, as vital as Twitter has become for political campaigns, there is a dark side. For anyone wiling away his days and nights on TweetDeck, fatigue becomes a very real thing, for campaign staffers and journalists alike. In a world routinely grown weary of micro scoops, memes and never-ending political posturing, a social media slipup can mean lost jobs, and lost campaigns.
“There’s so much chance for burnout,” warns Harris. “I think that does scare campaigns. It is terrifying in some ways to think that anyone from my staff or anyone who has access to a campaign Twitter account could instantly tweet out to over 1 million people whatever they want to say. And once it’s out there, it’s out there.”
The issue raises real questions about the restructuring of campaigns in the social media age. Should younger staffers who are more fluent in the medium be handed the reins? Or should senior staffers who can be trusted to stay on message-- and stay out of trouble—be given social media oversight?
Says Harris: “It could be 140 characters that nails the coffin, begging the question: Who do you trust?” Social strategy has become so sensitive, in fact, that the Obama campaign’s digital team refused Adweek’s requests for an interview.
At the end of the day, the position of the campaigns seems to be: Mistakes be damned-- let the information flow. The question is, for how long? “Facebook has become part of the plumbing of the Internet, and I really think Twitter is right on the cusp of doing the same,” says Smith.
“Twitter has definitely embedded itself into the fabric of the Internet,” seconds Klapper.
While it is impossible to know whether Twitter will endure as a political force, what’s become clear is that 2012 is living up to the hype as “the Twitter election.”
Whether it endures or not, two of the most active netroots campaigns this cycle are using Twitter and other social media sites like mad, Rob Zerban's and Wayne Powell's. These are the two guys taking on-- with ZERO help from the DCCC-- GOP Goliaths Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. I talked to the architect of Powell's social media strategy. Antonia Scatton is the communications director and she told me that "the kind of buzz Wayne Powell is getting online is the kind of promotion you can't buy. You can run all the tv ads you want, but it can't compete with an excited person telling their friends about you-- all 5,000 of their friends. I am actually surprised at the lack of grassroots support I'm seeing online for Eric Cantor. It suggests a genuine weakness on the ground which doesn't bode well for him in November."
Rob Zerban has a great team running one of this year's most successful online strategies. "Social media," he told me this morning, "levels the playing field and allows a grassroots effort like ours to battle the Koch brothers and Wall Street money behind Paul Ryan's campaign. When I began this race, I hoped people would join and help but this is the first major challenge to Paul Ryan so we didn't know what to expect. Thousands of new supporters have come in from across Wisconsin and the nation and many great ideas our campaign has implemented have come from our supporters. Some of the best ideas come from unlikely sources and I believe everyone can help. I encourage people to join at Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Daily Kos, Tumblr, YouTube, and Flickr. As Democrats and progressives, we must use every avenue available to explain more to voters about Ryan's destructive budget and how we as Democrats can strengthen the middle class."
None of this, by the way, has anything to do with the Romney campaign strategy of buying phony Twitter followers to make it look like their pathetic hack candidate is popular.
What’s happening? It seems to have started Friday, when Romney’s typical average of 3-4,000 per day increased some twenty fold to over 62,000 in a single day, according to TwitterCounter.com. But the new followers are highly suspect. From “empty” accounts to pornbots, spambots, Justin Beiber-related accounts, Obama supporters and foreign accounts, the followers tell a puzzling tale, suggesting spam automation, purchased traffic or perhaps even sabotage.
Accounts like “@banvardrazjzk” or “@etonyge” have ten or less tweets, some containing gobbledygook characters and despite only following a few accounts themselves, they each have hundreds of followers, implying it’s part of a mass-generated fake account network.
...With some onlookers assuming the Romney campaign is buying accounts to pad his numbers, we highly doubt they would be so clumsy. Last summer, Newt Gingrich received embarrassing national press when he had 1.3 million followers at a time no other GOP candidate even had 100,000 followers. The news then had sport reporting over 90% were fake accounts.
Just yesterday, Rush Limbaugh was exposed as it was discovered that New Delhi was the most popular source for “shares” on his “Rush Babes for America” Facebook promotion. This suggested he was outsourcing “astroturf” by paying experts in India to pad his traffic figures and perceived female support.
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