Chapter 4 - Obama's Success Driven by Social Media

It is often recognized that the "new" channel of television helped John Kennedy win the Presidency in 1960, and the author suggests that Barack Obama may owe a great deal to social media for his 2008 election. In the primaries, the Internet and social media figured heavily into fundraising and publicity efforts, as Obama was at a distinct disadvantage to opponent Hillary Clinton, who was already an established mass-media personality and had a more sizable political machine.

In terms of fundraising alone, Obama raised a record amount of money - 92% of contributions were said to be in sums of less than $100, and much of it was collected from supporters online. In terms of supporters, he had over 3.1 million fans on his Facebook page, which was more than five times as many as his opponent.

Obama and YouTube

Much ado is made about the Obama YouTube channel, which garnered more than 20 million views and combined traditional campaign pieces with amateur videos from his supporters (11.5 million of those views were on the "Obama Girl" video, which was a publicity stunt by an aspiring actress). This and other online campaigns gave the impression of widespread support of the general public.

Another tactic that endeared Obama to the hoi polloi was in releasing behind-the-scenes content that humanized the candidate, giving the public the sense that they were becoming acquainted with a real person rather than a media stereotype.

An interview with a supported indicated that being connected to a candidate in social media makes people feel more in touch with the electoral process, even though he realizes that there is likely a team of campaign professionals running the show instead of the candidate himself.

Social media is very cheap. One political consultant estimated that the amount of attention Obama received on YouTube would have cost $47 million in national television advertising - and many of those dollars wasted on voters who would be unlikely to be influenced.

Another point: because social media is able to target audiences very precisely, the campaign was able to spend its promotional budget more wisely, to reach out to voters in swing states with greater frequency than those in states perceived to be in-pocket or unobtainable.

In addition to the efforts of the campaign crew, there was a great deal of promotional support from the general public, with "Obama" being mentioned in blogs and social media postings six times as often as his opponents.

Can Google Predict the Next President or Flu Outbreak?

Data on the phrases that users are searching for using major search engines provides a good indication of the public interest - and in some instances this data can lead to accurate predictions. For example, when Pepsi-Cola was looking to sponsor an up-and-coming musician, they engaged Yahoo to see which new artists were generating a lot of buzz - the name "Britney Spears" came up as a rising trend, and Pepsi seized the opportunity and signed her before she became a major star.

In a similar way, the Centers for Disease Control worked in cooperation with Google, on the assumption that individuals who searched for phrases such as "flu symptoms" or "flu remedies" were likely searching for a reason - they assume themselves to be sick. By referencing trends in these searches against locations, the project was able to predict flue outbreaks two weeks ahead of the CDC, which depends on data from clinics and insurance firms.

Social media can be used in much the same way - though the data is a little different: search engines indicate what people are looking for information about, whereas social media indicates the topics that people are talking about. (EN: I expect there are some subtle differences between the two, mainly that people use search engines privately, so it may be a better indication of their true interests.)

Swinging back to politics, analysis of search data during the 2008 election showed that there were 1.6 searches for "Obama" per search for "Clinton" and 0.48 searches for "McCain." The author mentions the caveat that "Clinton" is a more common name and likely got a lot of noise (people searching for her husband, a musician, towns of that name, etc.) (EN: This one seems to be clutching at straws, based on the little amount of data presented and lack of a better and more thorough analysis.)

Fireside Chats and Presidential Texts

In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt leveraged radio to connect with the American public to a degree no previous President had been able. His speeches in this forum were different to the typical public addresses - less formal, more human, and this is often credited as the affection the people had for him in return.

Social media allows for a two-way conversation in which the President can speak directly to smaller groups of people about their particular interest. In theory, the people can also speak back, though this is generally heavily moderated.

There's some sense that the President is leveraging social media to foster closer relationships with constituents, but most understand that it is not in the way that everyday people use social media: the message is often prepared by someone else, an when it is delivered in text format the President may have had nothing at all to do with it. And regardless of how it is delivered, it is very carefully crafted rather than impromptu and candid.

Of course, the President and other celebrated personalities are not alone in tailoring their social media image - per the previous chapter, everyone attempts to present their best, most poised, face to others online. Most people simply don't have as many handlers, writers, advisors, and assistants top help them polish their social media image, but their intent is the same.

Some theorists take the bold stance that social media can complement and even replace some of the functions of government, by enabling people more access to their representatives, more opportunity to participate personally, and greater access to government services.

Is the White House More BlackBerry or Mayberry?

The White House (or more aptly, the National Security Agency) for many years was resistant to technology: previous presidents were compelled to give up their personal email accounts and refrain from using their own mobile devices.

Obama's insistence on keeping his own BlackBerry and using a laptop computer was unprecedented and cause a bit of a stir, but he finally won out. Social media has been used by the Obama campaign and administration extensively, and these tools are seen as essential in having and "unfiltered conversation" with the public.

Some mention is made of the drawbacks of politicians being involved as private citizens in social media, as journalists and rivals seek to exploit this information for their benefit. Consider that candidate Sarah Palin's private email account was hacked by muckrakers, though the content they found was largely mundane and of no use to her critics. The same issues are faced by corporations, who create communities for critics to vent their spleen or, in some instances, parody sites that pretend to be official and seek to embarrass or discredit brands.

While public criticism is an annoyance to politicians and corporations alike, the result tends to be positive in that negative publicity often arises in response to valid issues and places pressure on the authorities to resolve them to the public's satisfaction.


The author mentions various firms that offer giveaways through social media. Businesses offer a "free" item to lure customers to a store where they will likely purchase other items as well, on that visit or another. Nonprofits offer "free" items and then solicit donations or participation. Politicians offer "free" items to those who show up to events on the presumption that they will get votes and support in exchange.

The author credits social media for high voter turnout in 2008, and names a number of businesses that offered a free item (a cup of coffee, a scoop of ice cream, a doughnut, etc.) to voters who showed an "I Voted" sticker. This skirts prohibitions about encouraging voters because the gift was not contingent on voting for a particular candidate. (EN: However, choosing retail brands that appeal to the demographic profiles of those likely to support a given platform effectively offers rewards that are more likely to be appealing to those who vote a certain way.)

The author suggests that, in the past, corporations were reluctant to participate in social media marketing - legal advisors used "doomsday scenarios" to scare executives who were not well informed about the medium into staying well away from it. Nowadays, there's the general attitude that "if we don't do this, someone else will." He sees it as a matter of confidence.

Back on topic: social media significantly reduces that cost of giveaway campaigns. In the past, companies had to spend a great deal of money on television, radio, and print advertising in order to give away product for free. With social media, the cost of issuing such an offer is practically nothing. The unpredictable cost of the number of people who will take advantage of such an offer is still a factor, especially since the reach of an offer made on the Internet is not as easy to estimate as one made in traditional media where audiences could be better assessed.

To mitigate concerns, the author details one Starbucks "free coffee" promotion that was heavily promoted: only one television ad during Saturday Night Live, advertisements in 30 programs on Hulu, and display placements on Facebook - plus some unsolicited promotion in local and national media. The total cost of the campaign was still less than $400K. In addition to customer goodwill and the future business they would gain by offering free samples, the campaign itself generated a lot of buzz in social media, growth in their "fan" based, and increased downloads of their promotional iPhone app.

The Problem of Long Voting Lines

Another factor that is credited for increasing voter turnout was a mash-up of Twitter posts and Google Maps, which gave voters a sense of the waiting time at the polls. People at the polls would "tweet" the wait time, and those looking for a convenient time to vote could check in via a mapping tool that showed the wait times at local locations.

(EN: The author describes it in further detail, but does not show any statistics to suggest its actual popularity. Given the various difficulties and mitigations around voting in general, a bit more in the way of proof seems necessary to assert that this solution, which seems quite clever, actually had a significant impact on turnout.)

Online Voting

There are many advocates for online voting: having the ability to cast votes online would be a great convenience for the voting public and it is speculated that it would do much to increase voter turnout. The traditional objection is lack of security and certainty: digital channels do not allow voters to be verified, are subject to being hacked, etc. But given that we have come to trust the Internet for financial transactions, it seems that we could and should trust it for elections.

The author makes a number of arguments in favor of trusting the digital media for voting (it's secure enough for commerce, the present level of security for voting is actually quite vulnerable, etc.) and then mentions a number of benefits of online voting (increased participation, lower cost, etc.), adding nothing new or interesting to the argument.

It seems inevitable that voting will eventually go digital, though there's greater speculation on how it will function when it is introduced. (EN: He carries on a bit, but this is all speculation.)

Even the Army Is Sharing Information

The author shifts to consider the way in which the military is slowly embracing social media, primarily for public relations and recruiting purposes. He suggest that social media enabled the Army to "easily" exceed its recruiting goals from 2006-2008 by leveraging social media.

Naturally, the military has not completely embraced the use of social media by its troops - there are very serious security concerns for using devices that enable a soldier to broadcast the plans or present location of his unit in the field, and unfiltered photos from the front lines could do much to demoralize the public.

The army is presently experimenting with internal social media - available only to military personnel - though the author mentions that Facebook was originally restricted to Harvard students (EN: which is likely a stilted comparison because Facebook was a student project on a university server, not an official PR outlet, and was viewed with much consternation by Harvard administration). The offerings of the walled garden community include milBook (social profiles), milBlog (blogging), and milWiki (collaborative authoring).

(EN: It's my understanding that many corporations remain draconian about employees' use of social media and strongly discourage people from communicating about work using private accounts. They have likewise attempted to create internal social networking tools - though I have never heard a credible account of a corporation whose internal tools had a significant level of traffic aside of a handful of toadies looking to suck up.)