…Is the Public Listening? Part 2 of a study in social media politics

Posted by Clayton Smith on October 11, 2012

Last week we brought you a glimpse at how much of an impact our two major 2012 presidential candidates are having in the social space. Today, we’re diving into the second part of the social media politics equation and examining how the public is responding.

There’s no question that social media is playing a major part in the expression of public political opinion. The first presidential debate resulted in 10.3 million tweets. By comparison, Super Bowl XLVI resulted in just 5.5 million tweets, and those were measured not only during the game, but also over the course of the seven days leading up it.

In other words, the public is definitely speaking.

But speaking isn’t the same as listening. How important is social media in the actual spreading of political ideas? In order to determine how effective the candidates’ social media strategies really are, we need to find the answers to three questions:

1.    Who, exactly, is using social media to discuss politics?

According to “Politics on Social Networking Sites,” a study released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 60% of Liberals use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, while only 49% of Conservatives use the same social networks. The 11% disparity between Liberals and Conservatives suggests that President Obama’s tweets and Facebook posts are likely to fall on more receptive eyes than are Governor Romney’s, and indeed, the numbers support this. As of October 2, 2012, President Obama had 20.4 million Twitter followers to Governor Romney’s 1.2 million. Obama had 29 million Facebook fans, while Romney boasted just under 8 million.

It is, of course, worth noting that self-proclaimed Moderates also have a rather strong social network presence. According to the study, 61% of Moderates use social networking sites, which leaves a lot of potentially undecided voters in the social space.

These percentages take into account only the number of people who use social media, and not necessarily the number of people who use social media to discuss politics. In fact, a striking number of social networkers believe political discussions have little or no space in the social world; 73% of all social networkers say that networks are not important for discussing political issues. So although there were 10.3 million tweets posted about the first debate, almost ¾ of social media users wanted nothing to do with them.

It appears, then, that only about 27% of social media users think networks like Facebook and Twitter are important for political discussions. But are they actually discussing, or are they only speaking?

2.    What are social networkers saying?

Democrats are more likely to take to the digital space to debate or discuss political issues than Republicans. According to Pew, 32% of registered Democrats think social networks are important for political debate, while only 24% of Republicans think the same. Therefore, you are more likely to see pro-Obama social media chatter than you are to see pro-Romney chatter.

The number of social media users who take the time to read that chatter, though, is quite a bit higher for both parties. While only about 1/3 of social networking Democrats feel comfortable talking about politics on social media, 48% think social networks are great places to learn new political information.

In other words, when Democrats speak, almost half the social networking party is listening.

This number is slightly more modest for Republicans; 34% of social networking Conservatives think social networks are great places to learn new political information. When it comes to Republican chatter, only ¼ are talking, and only 1/3 are listening.

But that doesn't mean Republicans aren't as enthusiastic about political social media discussions. The assumption, based on the numbers above, is that 16% of social networking Democrats interested in learning political information from Facebook or Twitter post nothing political on their own. Only 10% of social networking Republicans interested in learning political information from the sites post nothing political. This margin suggests that although politically social Republicans may have smaller overall numbers than Democrats, their fan and follower base is generally more enthusiastic about discussing ideas rather than passively reading them.

3.    Do social media politics move voters to action?

The big question we all want to know the answer to is, “Do social network politics really sway the vote?” Of course, it’s virtually impossible to give a hard and fast answer to this question, but Pew’s research can give us some interesting insight into the topic.

Apparently, 26% of users said that social networks are important for recruiting people to get involved in political issues. Of course, this number does not necessarily represent the number of people who are likely to be swayed by social network politics; it only represents the number of people who believe social networks can move people to political action. But it’s about as close an estimate as we’ve been able to find on the power of social media politics, and it serves as a good general basis of understanding.

26% of social network users may not seem like a terribly high number of people--after all, it’s barely over ¼ of the total social media population--but consider this: If Facebook has 140 million U.S. users (Quantcast estimated 138.9 million back in May 2011, and the number is likely quite a bit higher now, almost 18 months later), and even if only 75% of those users are of voting age, that means that more than 26 million Facebook users could be moved to 2012 presidential political action by social network politics.

The Bottom Line

Democrats enjoy an overall more active social networking base than do Republicans, but the Republicans who are interested in politics on social media are more inclined to engage in discussion than are their Democratic counterparts. The majority of each party prefers to deal with politics offline, though, so while we’re seeing massive surges of political development on the major social networks, 2012 might not be a truly “Social Media Election” after all. Even so, the number of people who do believe in the power of social media politics, regardless of political affiliation, is certainly large enough for them to be considered a force in the public arena. When the candidates speak through social media…and, as we saw last week, they certainly are speaking…at least 41% of social network Democrats and Republicans are listening.



Topics: politics, Politics, social media, social media politics, study

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