The United States Embassy Ottawa hosted Georgetown Associate Professor Diana Owen, yesterday. Ms. Owen researches the role of media, particularly digital media, in US politics. The focus of yesterday’s session was on digital media and US elections. She shared an incredible wealth of information. This post focuses on three specific points. By the way, my use of the terms digital and digital media includes social media.
THE HONEYMOON IS OVER: Digital is but one element in a complete ecosystem
The last federal election (2008) was the watershed year for digital in American politics. Young people in particular became involved in a way unseen in many years, wooed by the shrinking gap between the politicians and public, and the belief a significant and permanent shift of political tide was taking place. The transition to social media hasn’t happened. President Obama has not been as effective with social media as young people hoped. That led to the optimistic becoming disenchanted.
While the digital roll-up in political campaign budgets has grown from 3% in 2008 to 10% in 2012, television is still the dominant communication media. Ms. Owen’s research shows 72% of voters turn to television to get necessary information and that 20% of voters don’t use the Internet at all. For digital to take a real foothold, politicians have to do more with and for their tribes between elections. Until then, politicians will have a tenuous and opportunistic toehold.
HYPER, HYPER, HYPER: The campaign of things
In the political world, digital offers some of its greatest impact in the ability of campaigns to hyper-segment issues, audiences and digital platforms. Campaigns are embracing the ability to craft targeted messaging for specific issues and specific interest and community groups. They can then use sophisticated websites, laser-focused microsites, organized social networks and structured online paid media campaigns to reach their audiences. This allows campaigns to tweak the language and the depth of information offered to more effectively reach their targets.
Much of this hyper-local focusing is made possible by complex databases; an area in which Barack Obama has a significant advantage over Mitt Romney. However, the Obama campaign (if I’ve read my messy notes correctly) hasn’t been able to convert as effectively this time around as he did in 2008.
POLITICIAN, PARTY, PUBLIC AND PAC: Everyone has access to everyone
Digital (and its many features) has revitalized party participation. This has resulted in a sustained momentum between elections, and the parties taking a more active role in the elections. Ms. Owen pointed out attack ads are often hosted by the parties to allow a more positive tone in the campaigns — positive being preferred within digital culture.
However, the digital ecosystem gets even more complicated now that social networking sites have created their own Political Action Committees (PACs). Facebook has its own lobbyist and funds its PAC through employee donations. To its credit, Facebook has not yet funded its political activities from revenue collected on the backs of its user base (that we know of). Some digital sites have hosted debates, town halls and other political events.
By my estimation, there’s a weird imbalance in the US system brought on by a quirk in the digital world: in the race to free/cheap and easy access, the gap in political power is widening even as the size of the political supply chain is shrinking.