Romney v Obama on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube

By Kate Dailey
BBC News Magazine

image captionThe candidtes both have active Twitter profiles

A new study by the Pew Research Center examines the social medial practices of both presidential candidates. But will the web win them votes?

In 2000, US presidential candidates began to realise that the web was worth taking seriously. And since then, those aspiring to higher office have become more and more comfortable with campaigning online. Now, it's as essential for candidates to have a presence on platforms like Facebook and Twitter as it is for them to kiss babies and host fundraisers.

The Pew Research Center has released a report analysing how the 2012 presidential candidates have set up their virtual shops. Researchers examined the social media output for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during a two-week period this summer.

The study shows that while both campaigns are engaging enthusiastically in social media, they are more enthusiastic about the "media" part than the "social" aspect.

The promise of platforms like Facebook and Twitter is that they are egalitarian, and users can interact with one another seamlessly despite the power differentials in real life. Residents of Newark, NJ can tell Mayor Cory Booker which streets need plowing after a snowstorm. Justin Bieber can ask all his fans to call the number of a rival. And consumers can express their dissatisfaction with companies on their Facebook pages, and the companies can respond in kind.

Campaigns like that they can use social media to directly contact voters. But they're less keen on using social as a two-way street.

"Campaigns are using technology to push out their own message rather than engaging in the social aspect," says Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Partly, that strategy is logistical.

"In the case of Corey Booker, social can be hugely effective at relationship building. But when you're Romney and Obama, if they did treat social as a two-way channel I think they'd be so inundated," says Paul Ten Haken, president at Click Rain, a multimedia firm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Instead, candidates are looking to others to help build personal relationships online.

"What to watch out for is they have a lot of different surrogates. They can be the campaign director, a specific account affiliated with the campaign," says Clay Schossow, president of New Media Campaigns, a company based in North Carolina.

He cites @Tech4Obama_NC, a Twitter account designed to rally support for the president among technology professionals in North Carolina. Though the account has less than 300 followers, they engage with those followers on a personal level through direct messages and replies to tweets.

That type of attention, says Schossow, can sometimes make a bigger difference than tweeting to thousands with no personal touch.

Indeed, both candidates have tried to target groups of voters with niche information. President Obama has 18 different constituency groups on his website, a strategy Romney recently embraced

"When we did the study in mid-summer Romney didn't have any voter group pages, and they've now added nine," Mitchell says.

The groups allow more targeted messaging to potential voters, and yet another point of contact for the campaign team.

"We know that the more touch points we have for someone the more likely we are to get them out there. Before, we might have had someone on a email list. Now, we try to get them as a twitter follower, a Facebook fan, and on two email lists," says Schossow

Obama has out paced Romney in social media output. He has 10 million Twitter followers to Romney's' 895,000. During the study, his two main Twitter accounts - @BarackObama and @Obama2012 - produced a combined average of 29 tweets a day, compared to Romney's one (though the numbers may increase as the campaign goes on).

The content Obama puts online gets a much larger response from users than that produced by Romney, whether it's Facebook likes (1,124,175 to 633,597), re-tweets (150,106 to 8,601) or YouTube Likes, comments and views (839,933 to 399,225).

Still, there's little evidence that a strong social media presence is enough to put a candidate over the top.

"Most of the people are not using online social networks, so the usage is not representative of the general population. The ones who are on social networks don't all tweet their political opinion," says Daniel Gayo, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Oviedo in Spain.

He conducted a study that found that a strong popularity on social media was not correlated to a strong performance at the polls.

"It's very unlikely to work to be able to predict the outcome of an election," he says.

Where social media has proven most fruitful, strategists say, is in getting fans of a candidate to convert their enthusiasm into action - whether it's money, votes or help with the campaign.

It's also proven as a way to get cheap media exposure. Mitchell says that while YouTube videos made up the smallest output of social content from campaigns, those videos received the most attention elsewhere on their social media platforms.

"Once campaigns put a video out there, it was cross-promoted everywhere. They are really trying to make the most of any video that was made, with the chance that potentially one would go viral." Viral videos are then often picked up by network news, ending up on television without a pricy media buy.

In the end, social media is just another facet of a complicated campaign - not leading the way, but reflecting the mood of the candidate and his electorate.

"In the end, of course the final measurement is who ends up sitting in the oval office," says Mitchell of the Pew Foundation. "And that depends on a lot of different factors."