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Election 2012

Phones and other devices being charged in the hall way during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo)

Imagine a future in which any voter could express opinions about a presidential election via their own personal, global, real-time broadcasting system. During the televised debates, you could share your reactions not just with those sitting beside you on the couch, but with many other citizens in distant places. Your audience could instantly see what you say. And in turn, they could respond to you and address their own audience, triggering an organic cascade of further reactions. Imagine an entire nation discussing the election together in this way.

That vision is now a reality, as millions are using social media to join the largest public political conversation in human history. Election 2012 is writing a new chapter in the evolution of democracy. And it’s happening so quickly, we’ve barely had time grasp its significance.

At this point in the 2008 election, Twitter was just two years old and had 3 million users. Only one of the major-party candidates, Barack Obama, was using it to get his message out. Today the platform has 140 million active users and both Obama and Mitt Romney are tweeting regularly, as is the press corps and a rapidly growing swath of the voting public. This is the first truly social election.

During the two recent party conventions, 7 million public comments were posted on Twitter and Facebook in response to the evening TV coverage, according to an analysis by Bluefin Labs. And 2.5 million of those remarks were made during the final 90 minutes of the Democratic National Convention, a new record for social response to a single election event.

These and similarly stunning numbers have been eagerly reported by the news media in recent weeks. But as Stephen Colbert has observed, when it comes to social tools, numbers alone don’t tell you much. Seven million is an impressive figure, but who are the people behind all those comments, and what exactly are they saying? These are the questions we’ll need to answer, if we want to get past the buzz and discover the meaning of this shift.

In short, it’s time to take a deep dive into the social transformation of politics. That’s the goal of a project we recently launched at Bluefin Labs, a new stream of election analysis called The Crowdwire. The election conversation is a massive trove of information that’s growing at a staggering pace, a true Big Data challenge. We have developed analytic tools to identify trends and patterns that could never be found just by counting tweets.

The narrative of presidential politics still unfolds largely on TV. So we use TV as an organizational frame that grounds the social media conversation, revealing it as far more than just a digital Tower of Babel. When someone tweets about a debate, ad or candidate interview they watched on TV, identifying the link between the TV stimulus and the social response gives the tweet context and meaning.

We’ve already found some surprises. For example, our analysis revealed that of all those who commented on the Republican National Convention, the most talkative were anti-Romney people. In essence, as the Republican message crossed from broadcast TV to social networks, with one large group of people, it elicited a response opposite to the one the party was seeking.

Women, whose votes may decide this election, tend to comment less about political events than do men; yet women led the response to the Democratic National Convention. We also found that African-Americans, many of whom reportedly have been disenchanted with Obama, remarked heavily and positively on the DNC, a sign of re-engagement with his candidacy.

Looking back at the Republican primary debates last year, one of the most remarked-upon moments was when Romney offered his now-infamous $10,000 bet. Bluefin Labs found a nearly instant spike in audience response. We looked at what was said, and found the content to be almost purely negative. We looked at who reacted so negatively, and found that Romney’s bet hit a nerve in particular with parents and low-income earners – an early signal of the challenges to come for the Romney campaign.

We analyzed which campaign slogans have been resonating and discovered that there have been a few minor hits – for Obama it was “Romney Economics,” while Romney had success with “America’s Comeback Team.” But so far, neither has come up with anything close to the success of the Yes We Can slogan from Obama’s 2008 campaign. Every presidential candidate is also a brand, and, like commercial brands, they must battle for the public’s attention. We’ve been tracking how Brand Obama and Brand Romney are doing versus the iPhone, Starbucks and other popular brands.

Out-of-the-blue events that no poll can predict, such as the recent anti-American protests in the Muslim world and Romney’s “47 percent” controversy, play an important role in presidential campaigns. We discovered that women spoke up more about the “47 percent” issue than they did about the foreign crisis. We’re also interested in the language people use to comment on campaign events. Here, for instance, are two word-trees showing the language used most frequently in social comments about the first debate between U.S. Senator Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren.

Next, we’ll be quantifying how much of the election conversation is about the issues versus how much is about personality and the horse-race.

There’s no question that social media are changing politics. Join us as we learn how.

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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Simon

    I’ll be curious to see how much of an age gap there is here — how much older folks are commenting/participating via social media, as opposed to, say, the under-30.

  • http://twitter.com/8CircleMedia 8 Circle Media

    Happy to learn about the Crowdwire Project. I’ve been dying to initiate a large scale project on the subject for a while now. The most interesting aspect of this article is the RNC backlash. As you mentioned, Obama used Twitter in ’08, but the Republicans are noobs so to speak. I imagine demographics play a huge role in this as Simon mentioned. I would think Facebook would perform better as a platform for the RNC, but Obama is outperforming Romney on that front as well.

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