How Social Media Helped Shape the Presidential Election

This year’s election night set new records in social media history. Twitter peaked at 327,000 tweets per minute and President Barack Obama announced his own reelection by tweeting a photo of himself embracing his wife with the caption “Four more years”—which quickly became the most shared image since the platform’s inception. Election night also doubled the previous record of 10 million tweets during the first presidential debate. Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms experienced similar surges throughout the election season—surges Robert Longert, adjunct instructor of English, monitored closely with his social media class at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.

Using the presidential campaign as a model, Robert Longert and his Stern College class closely monitored engagement and trends in social media.

Longert’s class, Topics in Communication: Social Media, used the United States presidential election as a model to study the usage and spread of information over social media platforms. YU News spoke with Longert about how social media impacted the election and how it will continue to impact American culture in the future.

Q: What was the biggest surprise about the use of social media on election night?

A: I wasn’t surprised by the volume of the response, but I’m always intrigued by the original ways news organizations report the news using social media tools. From killing paywalls when it comes to election coverage, like The New York Times did, to creating interactive maps of who won the election based on Twitter conversation, media organizations and even individual social media users never cease to amaze me.

Why did you decide to use the presidential election as a model for your class to study the use of social media in marketing?

The election is timely and people really use social media to engage in it. For our class, I wanted to pick something my students would see the impact of immediately. I’m lucky to be teaching in the fall semester of an election year because people are very passionate about it.

This year’s debates were some of the largest events in social media history, with the election itself coming in at number one. Why were the numbers so high?

I think people use the second screen (a companion internet device or application that complements primary media) as a way to express themselves, whether they’re watching the debates or “The Jersey Shore.” Now at the bottom of the television screen you’re seeing a hashtag at all times because everyone wants to be part of the conversation and TV channels want to own and curate that conversation.

After winning re-election, the above image was posted on the president’s Twitter page. It quickly became the most retweeted photo in the history of Twitter.

People participate in social media not only because they have things to say, but because they want to see what their peers have to say, too. Mitt Romney’s comment about “binders full of women” went completely viral within 24 hours. A Facebook page devoted to that binder comment popped up and had more than 90,000 likes within a day. It becomes part of pop culture. Everything the candidates said during these debates was watched extremely closely and recorded to the nth degree through tweets, Livestream and more. Even now, I can go back and watch a debate over and over. I can probably find parodies that were created that same night.

How does that affect politics and politicians? Does it change the way they campaign or act in office?

There are a few ways social media has made an impact. Obama really leveraged it as a platform to communicate with potential voters and that was a game changer—it may even have gotten him elected. Discussions no longer only happen around dinner tables or in coffee shops, but on Twitter and Facebook. Everyone has an opinion, and you have to be selective about the information you take in and really trust your sources. Social media places a lot of scrutiny on the candidates; we have more information about their personal lives than ever, so they have to be even more careful with how they behave. Here’s an example: Mitt Romney’s fundraising video was leaked and distributed online and his approval rating the next day sunk, kind of like the stock market. The positive sentiment online about him was much lower and then his communications team had to do a lot to rectify the situation, all because of that one video.

Does the popularity of social media especially in younger demographics mean they are more engaged in politics now than they have been in previous generations?

The great thing about social media is that if you’re not of age to vote, you can still have a say. You can still write a blog post and still be influential, which I think is great.

I think what sometimes happens is that who you follow on social media dictates where you’re getting your news, and if you’re only following those types of people, you’re only seeing one side of the story. It changes the way people think. But I do think it engages a younger audience more, because this is where young people hang out. They may not normally have conversations about politics in their everyday lives, but to those young people who may feel strongly about something, they’ll never feel like, “I have an opinion and no one is listening to me.” There will always be a group online you can associate with and be part of.

What are the pros and cons of people getting their news from informal sources like Twitter or Facebook, rather than news outlets that try to be objective and verify their information?

A lot of people use social media to get their news, but on Twitter and Facebook you interact with and follow the same select group of people all the time. People are relying on their friends and Facebook a lot more than standard news sources because they truly trust their friends and believe what they have to say. Even if your friend posts something from CNBC, you’re one step closer to relating to that piece of news because your friend posted it, whereas if you saw it on your own, you’d have to decide for yourself if you cared about it or what you thought of it. Or you might not know a person in real life but read their blog every day, so they feel like your friend because they’re a human as opposed to a news organization, which is sort of faceless. The way we take in information is really shifting.

That also has a huge impact on what you buy. With social media, we’re really influenced by our friends. If I see you recommended a product, I’ll say, “Oh, if you’re using it, it must be good. I don’t have to do that much research.”

So that’s the bad news: it’s much harder to get the full picture, even when you’re aware of all this. Most of what you will find in social media is opinionated, not a third party. The good news is that when you need to actually make a really important decision, you’re going to do a social search, which means you aren’t just Googling it—you’re asking your friends to share their advice and experience. I can start a thread going on my Facebook page and get recommendations from people I know. So yes, there’s an opportunity to get really skewed and only see one point of view, but that being said, hasn’t that been going on in the news business for years?

What is the focus of your class? What is your goal for students who take the course?

My class is about how we got to where we are today and how social media is used in marketing. The election was one way to demonstrate how far we’ve come and how much conversation is around. We went through an exercise where we started a class blog on Tumblr called “The Social Vote,” (follow the @socialvoteYU on Twitter) and we monitored the election and the impact social media had on it, paying special attention to conversations about social media and the election. I think that was a great way to demonstrate the way information spreads and the way the general public is using social media.

What trends did you find?

We’re showing that the election becomes a true part of pop culture when it’s going on. Two students posted something really similar about “Saturday Night Live” and how there are a lot of parodies when it comes to the election, which shows how deeply ingrained it is in pop culture. Brands try to insert themselves into the conversation, too. We found brands talking about the fashion that wives of candidates are wearing. And the students are also seeing what happens when a piece of content is created. When Clint Eastwood gave his “chair” speech, one of my students reposted a picture that Obama tweeted that says, “This seat’s taken.” That already had 50,000 retweets. It shows how quickly information spreads, sometimes researched, sometimes not.

At the end of the election, we wanted to be able to say, “We watched this thing from the beginning and we understand why certain things happened as a result of the conversations and the volume of conversations that were had across social media.”

I want my students to be able to walk out of this class, get an internship at any marketing or PR agency and be well-versed in what is out there. The goal of an election campaign is to sell the candidate. In marketing agencies that goal may be to raise awareness of a cause, sell a product, or start a conversation, but the techniques are the same… No matter what you go into, social media is going to be a part of it, even if that just means maintaining a personal presence.