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Social Media Not the Most Effective Method of Campaigning

Social media is likely more effective in motivating people to vote than it is changing their minds about an issue.

by Paul Hampton, The Sun Herald / July 29, 2015

(TNS) -- State Sen. Brice Wiggins' Facebook and Twitter feeds in the middle of July were all about a happy camper celebrating a wonderful life event with his family on Amtrak. In San Antonio one day, he was smiling like a candidate with no opponent in this round of legislative elections. But Wiggins also uses social media to advocate for causes, and bills, he's passionate about. He took to social media during the public hospital meetings/records bill to encourage supporters of a measure that could give them more access to the dealings of Singing River Health System.

Most candidates have some sort of social media presence — after all, it's free advertising. But is it the most effective campaigning? Probably not, says an Ole Miss assistant professor who studies campaigns and elections.

"My expectation is that a lot of the people who go to candidate pages, and especially those who 'follow' them, are people who [already] support the candidate," said Conor Dowling, who earned his Ph.D. from Binghamton University and was a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University's Center for the Study of American Politics for four years. "And so it's more about spreading the message to 'friends' and attempting to garner more support for the candidate."

Social media, he said, likely is more effective in motivating people to vote than it is in changing their minds about an issue.

Most candidates' Facebook pages are dominated by photos of candidates campaigning or having fun with their families, a mix of their public and private lives. In other words, not much has changed from 2010, when there was a social media earthquake on the campaign trail.

"This might be the last election cycle in which we write about how the phenomenon of social media —interactive, friend-driven websites such as Facebook and Twitter — is affecting national politics, because next time around, the practice of social media may be such an integral part of the process we won't even notice it," Linton Weeks wrote that year in Politics in the Social Media Age on National Public Radio's website.

Turns out, social media continues to evolve in 2015, with new features added, new sites popping up and people figuring out new ways to use and abuse them.

So reporters still notice when brush fires erupt on sites such as Biloxi Politics Uncensored, where Gulfport attorney Tim Holleman tried to correct what he saw as some misinformation.

"I wish I never said a word," said Holleman, who said he was commenting as voter Tim Holleman, not Tim Holleman, Harrison County Board of Supervisors attorney, when he spoke favorably of Chancery Clerk John McAdams. "I'm a voter too. I have insight and information about certain issues.

"I started out just trying to explain things."

A turn for the worse

It quickly degenerated into an Internet food fight over the records of McAdams and his chancery clerk challenger Brian Carriere.

"It got nasty," Holleman said. "When I said, 'Let's look at the other candidate's record,' I got blasted.

"Even though we disagree, we ought to be able to sit down and have a discussion about it. There's something about social media that prevents that. When you have a different opinion on something, they attack you."

That should be no surprise. Polls time and again show America is more and more divided over politics. Those with politically minded friends can rarely scroll down their Facebook newsfeeds without encountering open warfare, and they don't have to use the hashtag #politics to ferret out political wisecrackery on Twitter.

Of course, political discourse anywhere often strays over the line and social media is no exception. A flurry of "unfriends" on Facebook and "unfollows" on Twitter follows just about any major political development. Gay marriage, the Rebel flag and the nuclear deal with Iran all brought about an epidemic of hurt feelings.

Pew Research Center last fall found liberals were most likely to go that route.

About four in 10 said they have unfollowed or defriended someone over their political views, compared with three in 10 for conservatives, according to the Political Polarization and Media Habits study.

Today's flavor

No wonder younger members of the Web hive have fled to Snapchat or other sites less likely to have been discovered by their cantankerous parents and their friends.

The social media app that sends messages, photos and videos that self-destruct within a few seconds claims an audience of more than 60 percent of smartphone users between the ages of 16 and 34 and a total audience of about 100 million.

With those numbers, it couldn't, and didn't, last. By the start of the presidential race, Snapchat had been discovered, though hardly used to full advantage, by the candidates.

"I think that certain candidates can get on platforms to just to be on them," Vincent Harris, founder of Austin, Texas-based digital firm Harris Media, told the Daily Dot after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Marco Rubio incorporated the app into their candidacy announcements. "Some candidates get on platforms just to get engagement. Just because you're on Snapchat doesn't mean you're gonna get engagement."

But imagine the chaos that will ensue when trackers and other political operatives get up to speed on a platform that leaves no easily discovered trail. To paraphrase Holleman, it could get nasty.

"I think social media has a place in our society," said Holleman, who said he's more comfortable showing off grandkids or catching up with old friends than talking politics on Facebook. "I'm not sure it's good in the political arena."

(c)2015 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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