With candidates gearing up for the 2012 election, I thought it would be interesting to briefly look at how the government uses social media. I hate to beat a dead horse, but I can’t stop reiterating how unstoppable social media is becoming. Just look at the numbers! They don’t lie. Of course I could do a full analysis of how social media has shaped the government since 2008 — and I’m sure that it’s been done by someone out there — but that would take much more time, energy, and resources. So for now, I’ve compiled this very rudimentary and starter look at the current relationship that exists between the U.S. government and social media.
Obviously, the best place to start would be with President Barack Obama, who revolutionized campaigning in 2008 by branding himself almost exclusively through social media. With both a popular Twitter and Facebook page, which are now redesigned and geared towards his re-election, he’s wasting no time in taking advantage of a platform he has mastered. Recently it was announced that he would actually be tweeting to his followers, as opposed to White House staff members. And even though only a few tweets are currently signed “BO” (signaling that he wrote it), he is still the third most followed account on Twitter (behind only Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber). As the election begins to pick up speed, it will be interesting to see how Obama and his team plan to utilize social media. It was already announced that on July 6, he would be hosting a Twitter Town Hall, where he would field questions from people who tweeted at him. It’s clear that the site will become a fundamental tool of the campaign.
In addition, it was just announced that Vice President Joe Biden has joined Twitter. Though he has only one Tweet, and the actual content of the account has yet to be seen, this move will only help Obama’s team reach out to millions of Americans.
In the past, campaign directors have been desperate in their attempt to get young adults to turn up at the polls, with programs such as “Vote or Die” advertised tirelessly on MTV. It’s safe to say that Obama’s use of social media in the ‘08 election helped in getting the second largest youth voter turnout in American history. Social media seems like the no-brainer tool to continue to reach out to youth and gain their votes, as the most common age for a Twitter user is between 18 and 29. And, considering that young voters more commonly identify themselves as Democrat, social media is targeting the right audience for Obama’s team.
With Obama’s team so heavily involved in social media, it will be interesting to see how Republicans on the other side react. As we saw in ‘08, a campaign can be foiled by any form of media, even a simple SNL sketch. Planning, designing, and implementing an almost flawless social media strategy will be essential for possible candidates like Bachmann and Palin to succeed. Looking at Twitter now, the number of users following Obama is more than those of Palin, Bachmann, and McCain combined. While Obama’s team is already getting the word out there about the 2012 election on social media sites (with a clear image brand), Republicans seem to be a little behind. More than likely they are waiting until a specific candidate is chosen to represent the party, but they will have a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time if they want to make an impact. Not to mention, both Palin and Bachmann have become almost infamous for poor quotes, the inability to properly articulate their thoughts and ideas, and somewhat blunt and even embarrassing answers to questions. These bad communication skills do not lend themselves to successful social media utilization, especially when up against the eloquence, succinctness, and charisma of Obama. The worst thing that could happen is a Twitter account becoming a live timeline of flubs (not saying that that would necessarily happen). Regardless of who is chosen to run against Obama, it will be important to keep in mind that social media is about having a conversation with a community. It’s about outreach and building relationships. The Democratic party has been able to identify this successfully.
However, as we are all too familiar, social media can also truly damage the government. The dirty secrets, hidden lives, and juicy scandals of politicians such as Weiner can be easily exposed using social media. On one hand, it uncovers the secrets and lies of politicians that have plagued the U.S. government’s corrupt reputation for years. It helps kick people out of office whose personal lives distract from the main purpose and focus of government. On the other hand, this transparency really diminishes people’s faith and trust in the government. It begs the question: is ignorance bliss?
The government has a real opportunity here to capitalize on social media. One of the biggest complaints about the U.S. government is a lack of transparency. Citizens feel like they don’t know what’s going on, what’s a priority, what’s being discussed, etc. By simply updating social media sites regularly, this problem can easily be fixed. Social media is an effortless way to reach out to millions of people, with a simple click of a button — in some cases in less than 140 characters. The government can easily let the public know that they are, in fact, thinking about them while they work.
Reports of U.S. agencies using Tumblr to reach out to the public is more than encouraging. It shows that the government is taking an active role in reaching out to its constituents. Let’s hope that if Obama is re-elected in 2012, he will transfer the fervor for which he uses social media for his campaign over to the day-to-day operations of the government itself. Though he already occasionally shares on Twitter what topics and issues he’s looking into, the White House has the resources to do so much more with the platform. Obama’s ability to appear relatable to the American people is what got him elected in the first place. If he can work with those around him to expand upon that, using social media in a strategic and truly revolutionary way to reach out to the public, he will fulfill his title as a President elected by the people, for the people.