A Deep Dive into the Digital World’s Impact on Campaigns  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2012

A Deep Dive into the Digital World’s Impact on Campaigns   

Mashable’s 13-part series explores how social media are transforming politics. Fri., November 2, 2012.

By Danielle Levy
Danielle Levy (danilevy@umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


We are a long way from the world of yard signs, radio ads and going door-to-door. The advent of the digital era and the rise of social media have revolutionized the way political campaigns are waged.

Ten years ago, the concept of making an instant campaign donation with one touch on your smartphone was unfathomable. Technology has changed how we accomplish pretty much everything in our daily lives, so it's no surprise that it is transforming the political scene, from online ad targeting to Internet voting.

"The scale of things since the last election has grown so much, social media is now embedded in our everyday lives and is really a default communication platform for the next generation of voters," says Josh Catone, editorial director of Mashable.com. Mashable created an all-encompassing report this election season titled "Politics Transformed: The High Tech Battle for Your Vote." The 13-part, 20,000-plus word package features in-depth stories about how digital media are affecting next Tuesday's election.

"Politics Transformed" is an ambitious Web initiative examining how digital is reshaping politics--from an unexpected source. "Mashable has really evolved in the past few years. We have our roots in the tech blog, but we really changed our focus to beyond tech, and now see ourselves as a source of news analysis for the techy generation," Catone says. Mashable takes a look at a wide array of subjects, from entertainment to lifestyle to, yes, politics, through the lens of a digital perspective.

"With the election happening this year, we saw ourselves in a unique position to tell that story through that digital angle," Catone says. "We wanted to talk about things like how are people talking about politics online? How is technology affecting the race? How are candidates using social media? We felt that there was a need nationally and at large on the Web for more in-depth reporting of substance on digital and social media trends and how they are transforming our daily lives."

"Politics Transformed" is the first of Mashable's special reports. It hopes to roll out about three of four such projects each year as deep guides into important topics on the digital stage that could use a little more exposure.

According to its mission statement, "Mashable is the leading source for news, information and resources for the Connected Generation. Mashable reports on the importance of digital innovation and how it empowers and inspires people around the world." It has 20 million unique visitors a month and over 6 million social media followers.

We got a sneak peak of the potential impact of the digital world on politics in 2008, when a young senator named Barack Obama used the Internet to rally support. This time around, if you don't have an effective Facebook presence, Twitter feed and mobile app, you are committing campaign social suicide.

"When you look back at 2008, a lot of the things which we take for granted now in social media were really just beginning," Catone says. Twitter was a frisky two-year-old just starting to gain mainstream attention. Catone says that when President Obama was elected, Twitter had around 5 million users--now it has between 150 and 200 million. Facebook had 140 million users; now there are close to a billion.

During this year's combative presidential debates, Fox News Channel had a tweets-per-minute counter up on the screen, "That sort of thing was inconceivable back in 2008," Catone says. "It is just part of the infrastructure now, as a must-use, must-address communication platform that everyone has to use. This is not just in politics, it's everywhere."

The enormous change in the scale of social media inspired the Mashable project. Social networks, the use of the Internet and the rise of mobile are the core subjects focused on in the pieces.

Catone wrote two of the series' 13 articles, "How Close Are We to Internet Voting" and "How Social Media Can Safeguard Your Vote."

"Going into writing the article, I wasn't aware that Internet voting was already happening in so many different places and that there are already people who are voting online in ways that are not really secure," Catone says. Many states allow military and overseas personnel to vote via e-mail, which is extremely insecure and does not adequately protect the secret ballot. Also, big cities like Chicago have allowed votes in city council elections to be cast online, Catone says.

"Internet voting is already here in many ways, and I believe that it will continue to expand," he adds. So far the federal government has sided with those opposed to Internet voting for security reasons. However, people are increasingly demanding convenience when it comes to everything, and Catone predicts that over the next few election cycles we will see more Internet voting.

"It was an interesting struggle for me when writing the piece trying to figure out where I stand. It's hard to say whether I actually believe paper is more secure than computerized ballot, or is that just an irrational fear because that is more known to me?" Catone says. Catone says critics have horror stories about how insecure computer systems are, and how you can never really be sure if your vote has been cast, or whether some hacker has broken in and switched your vote to another candidate.

At the same time, advocates of online voting would say that there is plenty of evidence of voting machines malfunctioning or a poll worker throwing a box of paper ballots into the river.

In the article about how social media can safeguard your vote, Catone hoped to find examples of promising new approaches for monitoring polling places. He didn't find very many. He did, however, discover Election Protection, which is organizing an initiative in which volunteers will check out polling places around the country and report via mobile phone any problems they encounter, such as excessively long lines, too few voting machines or poll workers who seem to be improperly turning away voters.

"I found this an interesting way to use social media to make sure people are not disenfranchised, that they are not intimidated and get the opportunity to vote as they should," Catone says.

So where will we be in 2016? When it comes to social media, things change so quickly that it's hard to know. "Based on the facts discovered when composing 'Politics Transformed,' the biggest effect might end up being at the local level," Catone says. "Local politicians are using social media in more interesting ways than the national races."

He adds, "When you are Barack Obama and you have 20 million followers on Twitter, you can't really interact with people individually. When you are the mayor of a town of 30,000 people and you have 1,000 of those people on Twitter, you can actually have legitimate one-on-one conversation. In some respect, it is sort of a return to personal politics, which is something these platforms are allowing."

Social media allow politicians to connect at a more personal level. It's not the same as knocking on doors, but it allows for that same sort of old-school campaigning, and Catone predicts it will become even more prevalent in local contests in the future.

Other topics explored in the project include digital campaign marketing, targeted online political advertisements, social media boosting voter turnout and the rise of the mobile in the 2012 election. Articles about all four of these subjects were the handiwork of Mashable feature writer Matt Petronzio. Petronzio jumped at the chance to write for "Politics Transformed" because of his love for longform journalism and doing in-depth reporting.

"This is the year of the mobile," stated Thomas Gensemer of Blue State Digital, a media strategy and technology firm, in one of Petronzio's pieces. According to Petronzio, 66 percent of people between the age of 18 and 29 own a smartphone. Already there is a huge market of smartphone users for politicians to target. Petronzio wrote that the app Mobile Politics estimates that 80 million voters in the United States will access political information critical to their decision-making process via their smartphones. This would mean a more than 200 percent increase since 2008.

Petronzio says that the candidates are still figuring out how to effectively use mobile, which will become an even stronger force as tablets continue to proliferate.

In August, the Obama campaign became the first to accept donations via SMS, beating the Romney campaign by a week in sending out short messages to mobile phones. "As much as they have been successful with SMS fundraising and engaging people, it is still very much a learning process, and they will continue to see what works and what doesn't and use that in later years," Petronozio says.

Can social media boost voter turnout? "The question is almost rhetorical because at this point we don't have hard statistics saying, 'yes, social media is bringing this many people to actually vote,' " Petronzio says, "We do know that organizations like Rock the Vote have registered 5 million young people to vote since they were founded and that they do most of their engaging of young voters through social media. The question is: How many of those young people that have registered actually go out and vote?"

But one thing is clear: 2012 has seen a dramatic increase in the impact of the digital world on politics. And the forecast is for more of the same.

"With this election, we have seen what we would consider traditional campaign methods move towards embracing digital," Petronzio says. "They will be moving more into the digital realm because of the sheer fact that it is easier to reach people. They found out ways to reach voters and micro-target them with the same accuracy of direct mail through targeting online ads. By figuring out how to reach the people that the campaigns want to reach through digital, that is what will really help them in 2016."

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