Political campaigns are getting more sophisticated in their use of social media, so it’s incumbent on the rest of us to get smarter about it, too.
These social networks allow candidates to speak directly to their supporters without going through the filter of the media or the expense of paid advertising. Their great organizing potential is the ability to turn every supporter on the receiving end of those messages into a publisher able to spread the word, multiplying the audience for the candidate with no effort by the campaign. It also helps the campaigns reach people who otherwise would have been hard to reach, such as young voters and political outsiders.
Although social media sites like Facebook may use familiar words, however, they should not be mistaken for real-world communities. Facebook “friends” are not necessarily friends, and to “like” in the social media context does not always mean what you might think.
This comes up as a result of some early campaign positioning by candidates in the race for Maine governor. Independent challenger Eliot Cutler’s campaign made the entirely truthful claim that his Facebook page now leads the pack, with more than 20,000 people having pushed a button and “liked” it.
A spokeswoman for Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign pointed out that Cutler also has spent more heavily on Facebook ads, which bring people over to his page and may inflate his count. Gov. Paul LePage’s campaign manager said he is pleased with the number of people who not only “like” his candidate’s page but also comment on it, showing a high degree of enthusiasm.
Seven months before Election Day, when much of the campaign effort takes place behind the scenes, it’s forgivable for a politician to look for any distinction that will help him stand out. But voters do not have to buy into it.
The issue really isn’t who has the most “likes” or who has people commenting. Plenty of people will “like” a page just to see what the candidate is saying, and there are plenty of comments on candidate pages that are not an indication of support in November. The size of the networks matters, but the numbers are less important than how the social media channels are used.
Some people still think of the “like” button, with its cartoon thumbs-up, as an endorsement, but that’s not necessarily so. It’s worth “liking” all the campaigns, if only to see what a candidate’s supporters say to each other. It’s also interesting to see if operatives are trying to spread messages over social networks that the candidate would feel uncomfortable saying in public.
Social media is becoming more important every election cycle, but voters should remember that it is still just the delivery system, not the message itself. Campaigns may want to count “likes” and comments, but it’s still the message that matters most.