Social makes a difference in Nebraska political campaigns

Campaign 2012 may be the first time social networking friends and followers can actually make a difference for political candidates. But experts say candidates must actively use social networking sites to their advantage if they are going to create a winning dialogue with supporters and voters.

            “Social media has taken a large share out of the mass media market,” said Damien Pfister, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln communications professor.  Pfister has studied the impact of social networking in political campaigns and said it had some advantages.

            For example, in television there is one voice speaking and spreading the campaign message. In social media, Pfister said anyone can comment on almost anything and discussions can grow in a matter of seconds.

According to a September 2012 Pew Research Center report, 36 percent of users say social networking sites are “very important” or “somewhat important” to them in keeping up with political news.  More than a third of users rely on social media sites to learn about political updates.

There may be a downside to this. The downside is uncertainty over the reliability of information from some social media sites.

“Journalists used to be the gatekeepers of information that went out to the public, but now that politicians can post whatever and whenever they like, the honesty of every post must be questioned,” said Andy Boyle, a news applications director at the Chicago Tribune.

Another potential drawback to social media may be a self-selection bias. For example, on Facebook or Twitter, those who pay attention to a political site are most likely supporters of a certain politician. Pfister explains that in Facebook, a user “likes” a politician’s page. ““Liking” is similar to an endorsement.”

How do candidates in the 2012 Nebraska U.S. Senate race use social media techniques to their advantage?

Candidates Bob Kerrey and Deb Fischer use Facebook and Twitter in their official campaigns. Each candidate uses social media to reach out to potential voters and to keep up the message of the campaign. The style each uses is different.

NewsNetNebraska checked the social media sites of the candidates in late September. Deb Fischer’s Facebook and Twitter accounts posted once or twice a day. The Republican candidate’s online presence is smaller than her Democratic rival Bob Kerrey.  Kerrey’s campaign averages a couple of posts a day Facebook, and often more than 10 posts a day on Twitter.

“We are sending out the same message on Facebook and Twitter,” Chris Triebsch, the press secretary for Bob Kerrey, said. “But we are communicating in different ways on both.  There is an emotional tie to Facebook, but Twitter is new, fresh and quick.”

             Chris Triebsch, Bob Kerrey’s press secretary poses for a portrait in the campaign’s office in Omaha, Neb., on Sept. 14. He sees social media use in campaign as a way to allow people to engage with a candidate and other supporters.

Most posts to Facebook for the Kerrey campaign have to do with stories of everyday people or tell how the candidate is interacting with citizens. Most posts on Twitter tell policy beliefs and updates about where and when Kerrey will be campaigning.

Deb Fischer’s Facebook and Twitter sites frequently have the same messages, slightly altered to allow for the 140-character limit on Twitter. “Facebook is like a journal of a campaign and a candidate,” Daniel Keylin, the communication director for Deb Fischer, said.  “Twitter is more basic, it is like mini-press releases.”

The Deb Fisher campaign uses its social media as a way to keep voters and supporters up to date with what the candidate is doing. “For us, social media is a grassroots tool,” Keylin said.

Keylin says the engagement level of supporters and potential voters on social media is more important than the simple number of likes or followers on a page.  Bob Kerrey’s campaign Facebook had 12,665 likes and Deb Fischer’s page had only 5,464 likes as of Sept. 22, 2012. The Facebook feature showing the number of people “talking about this” is more than 4 to 1 in favor of Bob Kerrey’s campaign. This is may be a trend with Democratic voters.

According to the Pew report, Democrats are more likely than Republicans or independents to say social media use and politics are important to them.

Part of the strategy for social media use in campaigns needs to be focused on “event-centered politics,” according to Pfister.  “You have to have an event or create something that gets people talking,” he said. Discussion and commentary is vital to the sustainability of social media.

This sort of conversation between politicians, supporters and potential voters has, in a way, brought back politics and campaigning to the traditional style of word-of-mouth, not mass broadcast like has been the norm for the past half-century.

“We have returned to more traditional routes of trusting family and friends for information about candidates,” Pfister said.

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