Social Media's Election Effect

The United States sits on the cusp of an election in which not only will the winner define the nation's course, but the election process itself has the potential to reverse a trend of disenfranchisement with the political process. It's a chance to truly allow those who would lead a nation, hear and speak with the people as never before. We may look back at 2008 and realize the implications of social media were far greater than we ever expected, as it raised political discourse and action. Of course we may look back at 2008 and remember only the sensationalized celebrity gossip even mainstream media has decided qualifies as a lead, but I like hoping.

There is so much potential for social media to become a decisive tool for those politicians and campaigns that listen to and enable the social media community, because social media is the people's voice. While individual politicians' successes may well lie in the proper participation in social media ("Forget Innovative; Be Inspiring"  and "Social Networks and Politics" ), social media may play a far greater role in helping to change the way people engage in government and discuss the issues that divide, regardless of who wins individual elections. It's funny that such a powerful line from Lincoln's Gettysburg address meant to describe an ideal state of government would have such applicability to social media: "Of the people, by the people, for the people." Can social media give new meaning to these epic words? How?



Increasing citizens' political discourse - A frightening aspect of politics has become its ability to divide rather than unite. Rather than looking at how people are alike, the process focuses on how we are different. Yet by allowing people to discuss with each other, we can realize the potential for social media to increase the political discourse among "ordinary" voters. With increasing frequency I have seen my Facebook news feed filled with announcements of my friends participating in this debate or that political support group.  Instead of having the issues that divide dictated to us by partisan rhetoric, people can have real dialogue around the issues.

Issue discourse - You might know someone your entire life and never know where he or she stands on political issues. It's just not something you bring up unless the setting happens to be right. But you can meet someone on Facebook and, in minutes, know her political affiliations and stances on certain issues. Even more important, people you know and respect professionally, morally, philosophically or intellectually, that you may never have had the chance to discuss politics with, are now an open book (so to speak). A Democrat, finding out that he has more in common with a Republican friend than he would have believed, given the venom coming out of Washington, can go a long way toward healing a growing fracture in our society.

Nonpartisan use of social media - Of course social media is just the platform that enables. There is an unimaginably huge role for those organizations that believe participation in the political process, regardless of specific outcomes, is the key to strengthening a country (a stance with which I agree).  And since social media offers an unparalleled opportunity to evoke participation, the organizations that will be most successful will be those that can effectively participate in social media.

A perfect example of such an organization is Norman Lear's Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan group that encourages young people to register and vote. The difference between this and other organizations targeting young voters is Declare Yourself's ability to effectively leverage social media. There are a number of lessons that brands spending 100x this nonprofit's marketing budget could learn from Declare Yourself's execution of a social media campaign.

The key to such campaigns is to understand where the message you are trying to spread intersects with the conversation you are trying to enter. Declare Yourself wants young voters, and has tapped into young Hollywood and social networks to create compelling content that catches the attention of the viewer and drives traffic to the group's voter registration information Web site. Declare Yourself's most recent "viral video"  has attracted over 600,000 views, and online voter registrations have gone up significantly. "We want young people to realize that impacting the political process isn't out of reach," notes Christie Manning, the organization's program coordinator. "It's their future, and through social networks people can get together to effect change like never before. The next step is taking that online action and doing something in the real world, and we are encouraged by what we are seeing."

The key in the end is to make political action fashionable ("John Locke To Al Gore: Tech Changes, Advertising Remains"). More transparency into our peers' political views, a greater level of discourse, and the efforts of organizations to increase political actions amongst citizens are all powerful aspects of social media, but each only offers potential; the rest is in the people's hands. Luckily we won't have to wait for the "news" to report on another celebrity gossip story to get to the issues that matter if we decide to take an interest.

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