I wrote this for POLITICO’s popular Open Mike feature on The Arena:
Of course it does. Candidates sure think it matters. They seem to value a high number of friends or followers online. In July, it was reported that Mitt Romney’s Twitter account (@MittRomney ) gained 116,922 followers in a span of just 24 hours. This was probably the result of using a Twitter follower service, but the intent is clear: high numbers demonstrate popularity. And it’s not just quantity, it’s also image. Online and in print, tips to politicians abound on how to act in the virtual world: Be friendly. Be authentic. Expect that people will want to engage in conversation. POLITICO argued that social media savvy was one benefit in Romney selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate. But it’s true – buzz is no guarantee for a win. A study of four 2010 races (two for Senate, two for Governor) by NM Incite found that the most buzzed about candidate won the seat – but in only three out of four races.
What about citizens? Does all this online chatter make a difference? In five minutes on Facebook, I can comment on a friend’s new hairstyle and get outraged about Todd Akin’s remarks on rape and abortion. Funny how a tool like Facebook can also be politically effective. But that does seem to be the case. Recent research published by Nature found that during the 2010 congressional election campaign, people were 0.39 percent more likely to vote if they received Facebook messages telling them that their friends had voted – that was an additional 282,000 votes cast. And that effect was strongest of all from closest (most interacted with) friends. It may not sound like much but in an election as tight as this one, it can make a big difference.
For democracy to thrive, we need well informed citizens who are well connected to each other and enthusiastic about sharing their views. Let’s not discount the role of social media outlets like Facebook.