How Social Media Has Changed Politics

10 Ways Twitter and Facebook Have Altered Campaigns

The use of social media in politics including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube has dramatically changed the way campaigns are run and how Americans interact with their elected officials.

The prevalence of social media in politics has made elected officials and candidates for public office more accountable and accessible to voters. And the ability to publish content and broadcast it to millions of people instantaneously allows campaigns to carefully manage their candidates’ images based on rich sets of analytics in real time and at almost no cost.

Here are 10 ways Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have changed American politics.

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Direct Contact With Voters

The Social networking site Facebook is displayed on a laptop screen
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Social media tools including Facebook, Twitter and Youtube allow politicians to speak directly to voters without spending a dime. Using those social media allows politicians to circumvent the traditional method of reaching voters through paid advertising or earned media.

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Advertising Without Paying For Advertising

Barack Obama Campaign Ad
President Barack Obama speaks the line "I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message ..." in a campaign ad. YouTube

It has become fairly common for political campaigns to produce commercials and publish them for free on YouTube instead of, or in addition to, paying for time on television or the radio.

Often times, journalists covering campaigns will write about those YouTube ads, essentially broadcasting their message to a wider audience at no cost to the politicians.

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How Campaigns Go Viral

Twitter is a popular tool among political candidates. Bethany Clarke / Getty Images News

Twitter and Facebook have become instrumental in organizing campaigns. They allow like-minded voters and activists to easily share news and information such as campaign events with each other. That's what the "Share" function on Facebook and "retweet" feature of Twitter are for.

Donald Trump used Twitter heavily in his 2016 presidential campaign. "I like it because I can get also my point of view out there, and my point of view is very important to a lot of people that are looking at me," Trump said.

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Tailoring the Message to the Audience

Political campaigns can tap into a wealth of information or analytics about the people who are following them on social media, and customize their messages based on selected demographics. In other words, a campaign may find one message appropriate for voters under 30 years old will not be as effective with over 60 years old.

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Ron Paul
Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul. John W. Adkisson / Getty Images News

Some campaigns have used so-called "money bombs" to raise large amounts of cash in short period of time. Money bombs are typically 24-hour periods in which candidates press their supporters to donate money. They use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to get the word out, and often tie these money bombs to specific controversies that emerge during campaigns.

The popular libertarian Ron Paul, who ran for president in 2008, is orchestrated some of the most successful money bomb fundraising campaigns.

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Direct access to voters also has its down sides. Handlers and public-relations professionals often manage a candidate’s image, and for good reason: Allowing a politician to send out unfiltered tweets or Facebook posts has landed many a candidate in hot water or in embarrassing situations. See Anthony Weiner.

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Asking for feedback from voters or constituents can be a good thing. And it can be a very bad thing, depending on how politicians respond. Many campaigns hire staffers to monitor their social media channels for negative response and scrub anything unflattering. But such a bunker-like mentality can make a campaign appear defensive and closed off from the public. Well run modern day campaigns will engage the public regardless of whether their feedback is negative or positive.

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Weighing Public Opinion

The value of social media is in its immediacy. Politicians and campaign do absolutely nothing without first knowing how their policy statements or moves will play among the electorate, and Twitter and Facebook both allow them to instantaneously gauge how the public is responding to an issue or controversy. Politicians can then adjust their campaigns accordingly, in real time, without the use of high-priced consultants or expensive polling.

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It's Hip

One reason social media is effective is that it engages younger voters. Typically, older Americans tend to make up the largest portion of voters who actually go to the polls. But Twitter and Facebook have energized younger voters, which has had a profound impact on elections. President Barack Obama was the first politician to tap into the power of social media during his two successful campaigns.

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The Power of Many

Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff
Jack Abramoff is among the most famous Washington lobbyists in modern political history. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. Alex Wong/Getty Images News

Social media tools have allowed Americans to easily join together to petition the government and their elected officials, leveraging their numbers against the influence of powerful lobbyists and monied special interests. Make no mistake, lobbyists and special interest still have the upper hand, but the day will come when the power of social media allows like-minded citizens to join together in ways that will be just as powerful.