In the final minutes of one of the most watched and fiercely contested races of Tuesday’s midterm elections, the campaigns of both Sen. Harry Reid and the Republican challenger to his Nevada Senate seat, Sharron Angle, were working social media.
“Thirty-five minutes to go-every vote is needed!” read Angle’s Facebook page shortly before polls closed. “You, your neighbor, your mother-in-law … GET OUT & vote, NV!”
Reid, who was also exhorting his followers to relay his messages online, ultimately prevailed. But the postings showed that at the most crucial moments in the 2010 election, social media was in the thick of it.
For an entity that effectively didn’t exist just years ago, social media has rapidly flourished as a political force.
“This is the election when it became more deeply embedded in the rhythms of campaigning,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “It’s not so much that as a single thing it influences people’s votes but that it’s now so inextricably a part of the political communication landscape.”
The 2010 elections may also have been when Republicans truly embraced it. The change was evident at the finale, when House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner tweeted congratulations to a litany of triumphant Republicans and fellow Twitter users.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin played an active role in the elections with posts on Facebook that were instant news; the 10 most popular political videos on YouTube were all Republican videos.
“There was much hand-wringing over whether the Internet was a fundamentally democratic or liberal platform for communication, versus a conservative one,” says Steve Grove, the head of news and politics at YouTube. “We always felt like the reason that it was more used by Democrats was just they weren’t the party in power, and parties not in power look for innovation when trying to communicate with voters in new ways.”
The reverberations the Internet can have on an election cycle have been well-known at least since Howard Dean let out an unusual battle-cry during the 2004 presidential election. But 2010’s election was the first where social media was virtually ubiquitous.
In 2008, Facebook had one-fifth the active members it now has. Twitter was nascent, its news value not yet realized. Location-sharing services such as Foursquare and Gowalla didn’t exist or had just been created.
This year, most major candidates had a Facebook page. Election night results went directly to smart phones. And everything – the campaigns, the ads, the voting – was filtered through social media.
More than 12 million clicked Facebook’s “I Voted” button on Tuesday, more than twice the 5.4 million from two years ago.
Asked if Facebook is contributing to a heightened awareness of elections, Adam Conner, associate manager for privacy and global public policy at Facebook, said that he’d “like to think that we are.”
“It’s important when the message comes from places like Facebook but I think it’s really exciting when people’s friends are telling them, ‘Hey, it’s an election. Make sure you vote. Make sure you participate, it’s important to me,'” says Conner.
Networks and news organizations sought to weave social media into their coverage. Reporters and TV anchors tweeted through the night. ABC partnered with Facebook, NBC posted video on Twitter and CBS worked with Google. The Washington Post was the first news organization to sponsor a “promoted trend” on Twitter with the hash tag “Election.”
The flow of Twitter updates from selected sources was enough to usurp TV coverage for some users.
“By ‘tuning into’ Twitter on election night, I was able to get timely updates on the races that mattered to me from people I’ve already decided that I trust,” said Mark Rosch of New Mexico. “Social media, particularly Twitter, gave me the ability keep up with the far-flung contests I was most-interested in, as well getting more information more quickly on local races.”
Foursquare encouraged users to vote by awarding a special “merit badge” to those who went to polling places. More than 50,000 of its 4 million users received it.
Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and others used their power to get out the vote, supplying easy links for locating one’s nearest polling place. That could have helped voter turnout, which was projected at 42 percent of registered voters, about 1.2 percentage points higher than the 2006 midterms.
Mindy Finn, co-founder of the online political media firm Engage, said politicians are spending less than 5 percent of their budgets on social media. She cautioned overestimating its effect.
“Do we assign impact to people talking to their friends and neighbors in the same way we assign impact to people knocking on doors and making phone calls for a particular candidate or political party or cause?” said Finn. “On a basic level, it’s the same and things haven’t changed. Friends are still contacting friends and neighbors are still talking to neighbors.”
One of the most buzzed-about candidates of the election didn’t win. Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party candidate who ran for the Senate in Delaware, had the most-viewed politician channel on YouTube. (YouTube counted 450 candidates with official channels.)
Her campaign ad in which she began by saying, “I’m not a witch,” was watched by millions. It was parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” set to song in a popular “Auto-Tune the News” video and creatively co-opted by countless YouTubers with their own political messages to distribute.
Those clips, combined with the many older videos of O’Donnell that circulated widely, made her one of the most viral candidates – yet she still lost badly to Democrat Chris Coons.
Facebook claimed correlation between social media buzz and election success. It said that 74 percent of House and Senate candidates with more Facebook fans than their competitors won on Tuesday.
The social networking platform also co-hosted a town hall meeting with ABC News. The sight was telling: a room full of people on laptops gazing at a giant Facebook “buzz wall.”
They were far from alone in their Internet-tethered election experience. Akamai Technologies Inc., which delivers about 20 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, showed traffic peaking around 6 p.m EDT at over 5.6 million global page views a minute. That’s one of Akamai’s highest traffic rates in five years of measurement – even more than during President Obama‘s election night win in 2008.
Come two years and the next presidential election, social media is likely to be vital territory sought by Democrats and Republicans.
“In 2012, this will be a very contested battlefield,” says the Pew Internet’s Rainie. “It’s not a sidelight to politics right now. This is a central venue.”