Fasten Your Seatbelts for Social Media

The television era in campaigns is drawing to a close. Social media will be its replacement, enabling candidates to target their messages in a way not seen since the days when politicians spoke to voters only through stump speeches.

December 20, 2013
Social Media in Elections

American politics have been shaped by three great transformations since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic Convention with his “cross of gold” speech. That sea-change election brought with it such modern innovations as barnstorming the nation (Bryan traveled 18,000 miles delivering 600 speeches) and a tidal wave of special-interest money (Republican William McKinley raised the modern equivalent of more than $400 million).

An announcer in a small glass box on stage at the 1924 GOP Convention in Cleveland symbolized the next great innovation — radio coverage of politics. By 1928, Republicans were spending the bulk of their campaign budget on radio advertising. In fact, one of the managers of Herbert Hoover’s campaign wrote in The New York Times that the advent of radio coverage meant that a candidate can no longer “make a popular ‘wet’ speech in Milwaukee without adding fury to the energies of the ‘dry’ advocates in the South.”

The next transformation was … c’mon take a wild guess. The television age can be dated from the first “I like Ike” ad in the 1952 campaign or from the evening of September 27, 1960, when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced off in the studios of WBBM in Chicago. But (stunning revelation ahead) for the last half-century nothing in politics has been as powerful as the 30-second spot.

During that entire period, campaign reform has been entwined with television commercials. As a young Washington reporter, I covered one of the first Senate campaign reform hearings more than four decades ago, before Watergate and the 1974 legislation. What remains etched in memory is the image of the presidents of the three broadcast networks standing next to charts showing how prime-time entertainment would be gutted if candidates for federal office were granted limited free TV time.

These days, about the last vestiges of civility in politics are preserved by candidates being forced by law to say, “I’m Millard Fillmore and I approve this message.” When a billionaire behind a Super PAC vows to spend $300 million in the next election cycle, no one worries that he is going to flood the country with bumper-stickers or bid up the going rate for campaign issue advisers. The power of television remains so self-evident that it is automatically assumed that virtually all the money raised in politics ends up funding TV ads or those who make them.

But what if the 2012 campaign was another watershed in politics comparable to the little glass box for radio announcers on stage at the 1924 GOP Convention?

Based on my coverage of the 2012 election, campaign retrospectives and off-the-record sources, I am convinced that we are at another great transition moment in American political history.

By 2016 or 2020, social media will have replaced television as the engine that drives political persuasion. Looking back it is already evident that Facebook was a major, if mostly uncharted, battlefield in the war between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. As Jonathan Alter writes in his campaign chronicle, The Center Holds, “One way or another, Obama connected to 98 percent of the Facebook users in the United States, which exceeded the total number of American voters.”

(The most detailed look at the role of big data and social media in the 2012 campaign was written after the election by journalist Sasha Issenberg for the MIT Technology Review).

In theory, this social media metamorphosis holds the potential of dramatically lowering the cost of campaigns since candidates can now reach most voters without paying for expensive television time.

In reality, like the sticker price for higher education, the cost of campaigns never goes down. Media consultants will always insist that their candidates double down on television in part because that is how image-makers get rich. But it is also likely that the cost of advertising on leading social media platforms like Facebook will rise exponentially because of quasi-monopoly status.   

It is, of course, impossible to foresee all the implications of a technological change still in its infancy. For example, Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 Madison Avenue ad team never envisioned that in just 12 years the most explosive negative commercial in political history would be broadcast (once) — the LBJ daisy ad subliminally linking Barry Goldwater with nuclear war.

What is evident — and this should concern campaign reformers — is that political campaigns will lose much of their transparency. If future elections are waged within the algorithms of Facebook (or its successors), then suddenly the bulk of politics will be conducted on private property. The change is akin to all campaign speeches moving from the public square to privately owned shopping malls where entry is zealously monitored by security guards.

Television, in contrast, is the ultimate public medium. Not only are broadcast networks and cable systems subject to government regulation, but also it is impossible to conduct a stealth campaign on television. Even a sketchy Super PAC with an ambiguous name like Citizens for a Radiant Tomorrow cannot get away with running television ads that will only be viewed by persuadable voters. If you put your ad up on prime-time network television or, say, MSNBC at four in the morning, you know it will be seen by political reporters and trackers from the opposition party.

Even with 2012 technology, it was possible for campaigns to send personalized Facebook messages to carefully targeted voters such as Colorado conservatives who believe in home schooling or Prius-driving Floridians who are ardent recyclers. Unless you fit that precise category, you will never see those ads — a reality that makes social media far different than television.

We are on the cusp of returning to the era before radio when a candidate could make one pitch in Mississippi and another semi-contradictory argument in Minnesota. With these kind of targeted appeals, a Super PAC or a shadowy non-profit group could run an entire political campaign on social media without leaving publicly discernible fingerprints.

And who knows what will be possible on social media with the technology that will be available in 2016 and 2020?

My argument is not that Facebook and its competitors should be subject to intense government regulation in the name of clean elections. (Good luck getting that through Congress in any case).

Rather, it is to sound the tocsin and shout out the news that the television era is passing in politics. And campaigns waged within the confines of social media will bring with them daunting challenges for the media, campaign reformers, and voters. So, a piece of advice as we begin to look towards the 2016 presidential race: “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

You can reach Walter Shapiro by email: waltershapiro@ymail.com

And follow him on Twitter @waltershapiroPD.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Jason A. Howie)