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Social media plays role in Obama, Romney election

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This is the first time social media has had a significant role in a presidential election, but some social media experts say most of its influence won’t be evident until after the votes are tallied.
As President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney put the finishing touches on their campaigns before the Nov. 6 election, social media’s usage has been important and useful for both of them.
Unlike in the 2008 presidential election campaign season, social media has had a “key role” in this election’s campaign, said J. Roselyn Lee, assistant professor in the Ohio State School of Communication.
“We have yet to see how social media will shape the actual outcomes of this year’s election, but at least it is obvious that both candidates and citizens are actively engaging in use of social media in this election, even to a greater extent than what we witnessed during the 2008 election,” said Lee in an email.
Social media’s impact is important because it “provides the campaigns an opportunity to humanize the candidates,” said Brian Weeks, a fifth-year graduate student in political communication.
Weeks also said the “relatively new phenomenon” of using social media during campaigns is important for candidates because it directly targets the voters with information and is a good organizing tool.
As of Monday evening, Obama had more then 21 million Twitter followers and 31 million Facebook likes. Romney had more than 1.6 million Twitter followers and 11 million Facebook likes.
With the rise in social media use, some companies have started to offer services that allow people to buy fake Twitter followers to make a candidate or politician seem more popular, so follower numbers aren’t always reflective of the number of real people who follow an account.
Social media also gives people the opportunity to comment about events while they are happening, which is an important and positive aspect of social media, Weeks said.
“Being able to comment on political activities, like debates and rallies, really opens the door for citizens to get involved in politics and really become engaged in the political process,” Weeks said. “By posting a comment on your Facebook page, you’re opening the door for political discussion and political debates with your friends and family.”
According to Twitter’s blog, there were more than 10.3 million tweets during the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 in Denver, making it “the most tweeted-about event in U.S. politics.” At 9:53 p.m. that night, the amount of tweets per minute peaked at more than 158,000.
Undergraduate Student Government President Taylor Stepp, said the most interesting aspect of the social media and the campaign is that “there’s no one that’s not commenting on it.”
“Whether you’re someone that hates politics or loves politics, you’re saying something,” Stepp said. “I think you have to be responsible for what you’re putting out there, but I think to a large degree it can be used as an informative tool for individuals.”      
On the other hand, Stepp said the biggest problem with social media and the campaign is that we “rely much more on talking points,” such as tweets or Facebook status updates that briefly touch on an issue, rather than more complete research on the issues.
“We need to stop relying so much on talking points and start relying more on full policy discussions, and I think we’re seeing a lot more of that especially with debate reaction, because people will pull talking point lines that Obama and Romney have used and they’ll just tweet those out,” Stepp said. “We’re not having the kind of policy argument that we should.”
Other problems with social media’s impact on the campaign include relying too heavily on information via social media.
“If people rely on social media as their only source of information about the campaign, that means perhaps they’re using real, legitimate news sources less than they possibly would in the past,” Weeks said.
Kalyn Hoffman, a first-year in pharmaceutical science, said people shouldn’t be swayed by what someone says on Twitter or Facebook, and they should have their own opinion.
Whether or not social media has any effect on the outcome of the election remains to be seen, but R. Kelly Garrett, assistant professor in the School of Communication, said to “tune in after the election” to find out.
“I think we’ll have a lot more to say once we’ve had time to look at the data we’ve collected, because this is the first election where we’ve seen these technologies playing such a prominent role, and a lot of scholars are paying attention,” Garrett said. “But right now, we’re in the middle of it.”

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