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Can Facebook win Obama the 2012 election?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:27 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

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.

Obama campaign logo


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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Surely the difference between Twitter and Facebook is that Twitter is more about up-to-date instant information which gets passed on between users. Facebook is more relevant right now because it's the beginning of the campaign and there is very little going on. A Facebook group or page can be setup with very little to no information just to get some visibility. That's exactly what is happening here. Once the campaign kicks off and there is some regular campaign based news I'm sure Twitter will come into it's own. It's all about using the correct tool for the job. Pretty obvious really.

  • Comment number 2.

    Twitter does feel like more of a savannah for debate or quarrel rather than a place that enables anyone to arrive at a settled opinion. The stream of information makes it very hard to place a position in any sort of stable context. Facebook, on the other hand, has a "stillness" that makes it easier to mull opinions of others and possibly form a more stable view. It also has the advantage of combining various media (video, audio, still pictures and words) on the same page. Little wonder, then, that the Obama campaign is choosing Facebook.

  • Comment number 3.

    Simply put, Facebook is wired into people's lives in a way that Twitter is not. It is now firmly establish in the lives of 30 and 40 year olds. Though twitter is far more common place and established in the mainstream than in 2008, you can do a simple test of it's importance. Which service do you check first when you get back from holiday. It's no surprise that the "mainstream" digital tool Facebook, will be at the heart of the mainstream candidate's campaign. Of my friends who are all around 30, 95% use Facebook at least once a week. Probably 20% use Twitter.

    Added to that, Facebook's fan pages have come on leaps and bounds since 2008. Back then, most campaigns could only exist as a Friend or a group. Now, you can setup an event on your fan page and have people "check-in" via Facebook places - useful function for a rally for example. And people are liking services and products more and more, particularly if they strike an emotional core/demonstrate a value.

    Twitter became popular with UK politicians in 2010 for many reasons but a few that strike me as important are 1.It makes tracking of "success" simple - easy to show what impact you're having when considered against conventional comms 2. It was quite easy for staffers to get candidates to update via text message - not to be underestimated when older MPs and candidates only had basic Nokias 3. The media fell in love with it so it entered every conversation in press/tv/radio.

    It'll be fascinating to see how things develop during the race for 2012. As we've seen with commercial products, I'd expect to see Facebook as the primary call to action on most candidate literature.

    There are thousands of bloggers worth a read on this area - suggest a google for Mark Pack if you don't already read his blog.

    P.S. The Obama team always said that email was way more important than social media in 2008 (for donations at least). Even though email usage is declining amongst younger users, be interesting to see what happens in 2012. If Facebook allow messages to be targetted based on a the profile information of a fan e.g. age, gender, an extrapolation of income based on job title, frequency of post interaction, perhaps email will be downgraded to equal partner status.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    Genuinely as a 20something politics student, I'm avidly following the Obama (but more interested in the Republican Campaign) with a high vigour. But I have to agree with the other posters on this one. Twitter at the moment would serve no purpose yet. But the President to have Twitter on one level would put the President right in touch with the Public. Senators, Congressman (and the UK Politicians) have all jumped on the bandwagon, but my belief is that for a President (and I'm pretty sure I'm gonna be very wrong here) should avoid the use of twitter. Take Tim Pawlenty's exploratory committee announcement, a video done via his Facebook page.

    Agreed with the poster above, email vs Facebook vs Twitter. Should set out to be a very exciting and interesting use of communication to deliver campaign messages!

  • Comment number 6.

    Obama Zealots will be out in force again. But if you think Obama got into power because he utilizes technology better than any other candidate, he'd be wrong. When you have $1 billion in campaign funds, there's very little other candidates can do to compete with that kind of propa..*cough* I mean advertising revenue.

    Obama promised change, we the world watched and were happy to see somebody with a higher than above intelligence get the position. But unfortunately we have been betrayed. Two faced would be an apt description of the incumbent. He said one thing in his campaign and did another. He said he'd bring the troops back from Iraq immediately when in office, and constantly delayed plans and has left thousands of troops to maintain the "peace". He then sends 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and then commits to another war in Libya with out a vote in Congress. Similarly we in UK, committed our forces to action before a vote was called. But at least we had a vote on the subject.

    Obama scares me more than Bush, why? Because Bush joked "It would be a hell of a lot easier if this was a dictatorship, as long as I was the dictator". Obama actually acts like a dictator and if you can't see it.. I'm sorry for your blindness to the truth.

  • Comment number 7.

    any politican who can summarise his position in a twitter line is not worth voting for.
    both twitter and facebook are for rallying the faithful but at least you can make an attempt at outreach, and conversion on facebook.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Facebook is definitely the largest member social site. However as a member and I deleted my memebrship as there are hundreds of millions of fake prpfieles using celebrity photos and no profile picture photos. Thereby President Obama's try will be in vain as millions of fakes will say yes. Facebook now known as Fakebook for this reason and vote assesment will be futile.

  • Comment number 11.

    Twitter is for kiddy politicians. Youtube is the way forward and attracts potential voters and people will see what you are like away from the TV screens - more like at home

  • Comment number 12.

    Facebook will also play an big part in the debate and election happening here next month.

    I am using Facebook to explain to my Friends why voting No to AV is so important and it is easy to share links and images to explain the point.

    Twitter is great for sharing little bits of info quickely but you can't rely on people clicking your links or twitpics.

    Foursquare is just a game.

  • Comment number 13.

    The actual sites or apps being used don't matter much: some will still be around in the future, some won't. What is important though, is the use of the internet in the political battle for hearts and minds. We're only a step away from voting online, and once we've taken that step, we're only one more step from dispensing with politicians altogether, and all of us simply voting with a click on the issues that matter. A true democracy at last! I just hope I live to see it:)

  • Comment number 14.

    None of this will make any difference at all.

    The internet will not make any difference at all.

    The screaming political bloggers and their screaming fans are the same people that moaned on continuously before - just on the internet instead.

    If voting suddenly hit the levels of 19th century (up to 80%), then you could claim that the internet had made the difference. The last leap in voting was in reaction to GW Bush but still did not go outside of the average of the last 60 years.

    Other than that the numbers have sat bouncing happily around the 50 to 60% mark since WW2

    I know all the commentators are desperate to think that the internet has turned the world on its head - but quite honestly, it has done nothing of the sort.

    It has made the chattering louder and more invasive, that is all. Television had already made the big changes - the internet has just made the changes "on demand," nothing more.

    But the same numbers vote, the same political parties are in power, politics attracts the same people and the pundits are the same boring, arrogant lot that they ever were.

    Most people who go on Facebook do so to chat "over the fence" as it were, exactly as they have done for thousands of years; it hasn't made them suddenly more political. It hasn't changed society. it has just made finding a fence a lot easier.

  • Comment number 15.

    "Obsessive media claim Facebook obsession" - this should be your next story.

    Start with: 96% of users sign in less than daily
    End with: Only 8% of the world's population have an account.

    Maybe you could rephrase it as: 100% (rounded up) of the world's population do not sign into Facebook daily

    Or maybe this story would be as irrelevant as every other "Facebook is great" story.


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