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To be social or not to be social

Kate Winkle
Executive Editor

Requests for a “Hide political posts” button on Facebook are rampant this election season, but in spite of the annoyance to users, political campaigns will likely continue using social media as a strategy.

Political campaigns experiment with old and new forms of outreach to involve people in politics, according to Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a University at Albany professor who specializes in political communication.

“By now, everyone is a little tired of the campaign, including students and so campaigns have to find new, clever ways to energize supporters,” Stromer-Galley wrote in an email to the Collegian. “I also suspect campaigns tend to go a bit overboard with their social media messaging, and sort of like the TV ads playing in swing states, people get a bit tired of being hammered everywhere they turn with political messaging.”

Politicians traditionally communicated with the public directly or through the media, but technological advances allow candidates to interact with citizens in a more casual and daily forum.

“Much of the strategy in using social media for campaigning is untested. Campaigns have had 60 years to get TV advertising right. They’ve really only had five presidential election cycles to experiment with digital communications, and only four years to figure out how to use contemporary social media,” Stromer-Galley said. “In many ways they don’t really know what works and what doesn’t.”

What does resonate with the public is previously untouchable politicians are now more relatable and available to interact with constituents, according to Rosa Mikeal Martey, a journalism and technical communications professor.

“One of the most important characteristics of what we’ve been seeing over the last five years with candidates and businesses using social media is how they integrate it across these different platforms,” Martey said. “So it’s not really just they use Facebook or they use Twitter, it’s the way these things are integrated together that are really where that powerful shift has come.”

Managing social media varies daily and takes time and effort, according to Kimberly Sorensen, CSU’s Social Media Director. Social media is an integral part of a communications strategy and setting goals and paying attention to the audience is crucial.

“There is no quick and easy way to create content that people like, share and discuss, but through experience and time…” Sorensen wrote in an email to the Collegian. “A key to managing social media for any organization is to be flexible and ready to roll with the punches.”

Social gaffes are just as likely with social media as other types of media, and controlling the campaign message and supporters mobilized through social media is challenging, according to Stromer-Galley.

The extreme amount of free speech afforded to users of social media can help further a campaign, but is also risky because of the potential for negative publicity, according to Martey.

“The openness that makes it such a powerful tool also allows for the voices of so many that may absolutely go against what you as a business or politician want associated with your name,” Martey said. “That kind of vulnerability that comes with allowing anyone to speak in a kind of egalitarian platform is the difficult one to navigate.”

The ability to profess political affiliations online gives participants a sense of community and reinforces political ties, according to Kyle Saunders, professor of political science. Campaigns learn from others’ social media strategies and often hire consulting firms to improve a social media presence, striving for the “next big thing.”

Using media like Facebook to convince the 10 to 15 percent of the electorate who have not yet made up their minds can have an effect, according to Saunders, but it is not a huge one.

Brittany Wetzel, a sophomore biological science major, sees at least three posts from friends advertising candidates when she checks her Facebook, but she said that although political posts are prevalent, they are easy to ignore.

“I usually  don’t read them when they’re long and rambling, but people can say what they want. I don’t care— I know who I’m voting for and I’m pretty set on that so it really doesn’t have an influence on who I’m  going to vote for,” Wetzel said.

Martey and a former graduate student, Katharine Van Wyngarden, explored Facebook’s affect on politics in a 2011 research project comprised of a survey of 1,300 CSU students and 20 in-depth interviews. They found that Facebook is a great platform to promote discussion, but not for changing attitudes.

“What was very important to (those surveyed) was that they did not want people in general to use Facebook  as a platform to be pushy or insist that other people see their own views,” Martey said. “There was a little  bit of this balance between ‘I want to express myself and I want to support things that I think are important, but please don’t use this as a space to say you all should believe this and if you don’t believe this then you’re stupid.’ ”

Politics Beat Reporter Kate Winkle can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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About Kate Winkle

Executive Editor Kate Winkle is a senior journalism major who has worked for the Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation since Oct. 2011. She loves multimedia and collaboration, chocolate, books and writing letters. Email her at kwinkle@collegian.com or follow her on Twitter @KateEWinkle.