Can Facebook win Obama the 2012 election?
Is Facebook now the most important weapon in a politician’s digital armoury? Barack Obama certainly seems to think so. The US president has just launched his re-election campaign, and Facebook seems to be at the centre of it.
The Obama Facebook page, created way back during the last campaign, has this message at the top from the president:
“Today, we are filing papers to launch the 2012 campaign. Say that you’re in.”
Saying that you’re in means telling your Facebook friends that you support Obama and want him back as president in 2012 - a very cheap and viral way of getting your message out, compared with the huge cost of running a traditional American campaign.
The campaign website looks very sparse right now - indeed, it makes a point about being a work in progress - so the Facebook page, which is already “liked” by nearly 19 million people, looks more likely to receive the most traffic. The possible Republican contenders also have a big presence on the leading social network, though Sarah Palin, with 2.8 million fans on her page, seems to be far ahead of others from her party, even though it is by no means certain hat she will run.
As for other digital tools, a YouTube video was used to launch the campaign, joining the many Obama videos which were a feature of the last Presidential race. Twitter, though, seems less prominent.
The 2008 Obama campaign became a byword for innovative use of digital technology and social media - although all the excitement about the use of Facebook and YouTube concealed the fact that older techniques such as email databases and telephone banks may have been more important.
When I was covering the digital side of Britain’s general election last year, all the parties appeared desperate to learn lessons from across the Atlantic. But British politics became fixated not on Facebook, but on Twitter. Suddenly, it seemed every MP, every candidate, every spin-doctor was tweeting day and night.
While Twitter is now an essential tool for anyone wanting to tap into political news or watch a story unfold, many political strategists are sceptical about its value as a medium to spread your message and engage new supporters. They point to the fact that Facebook has a much wider audience, and is better suited to local campaigns.
For the dull work of gathering a crowd to go out and knock on doors, a network which is already employed to organise everything from book clubs to anarchist demos may be the better choice.
Twitter may be the home to the chattering classes, Foursquare is the thing amongst twenty-something New Yorkers with great social lives, whereas Facebook, in the disparaging words of the digital prophet John Perry Barlow is "the suburbs". But that is where most people live - so no wonder Barack Obama thinks it is the place to win an election.