Between the massive shifts occurring today among marketers in the use of digital versus “traditional” media (i.e., television, radio, print) – and the associated questions of the relative effectiveness of each – one can’t help but wonder if the use of digital media in politics is actually advancing the political process.
It is certainly undeniable that digital media played a pivotal role in securing both the 2008 and 2012 elections for President Obama. The Obama campaign’s “Digital First” strategy, architected by David Plouffe, pioneered new ways of reaching and mobilizing voters based on a differentiated strategy. This approach contrasted with a Republican campaign built largely around reaching voters through traditional media.
Plouffe’s first secret lay in a strategic choice in audience targeting. Instead of trying to reach broad audiences as Election Day approached, the Obama campaign used troves of data to analyze voting patterns on a by-state and by-county basis. The goal was to motivate “up for grabs” voters in the electoral-vote-rich swing states of Ohio, Florida and Virginia. Why? Through rigorous data analysis gathered through online, large-scale research, the campaign was able to categorize voters into three segments: (1) those who were certainly going to vote for Obama; (2) those who were never going to vote for Obama; and (3) those who could be persuaded. And the campaign focused all its dollars and energies on the third segment, thus ignoring the rest.
The second secret was using the digitally gathered understanding to mobilize activity – both through tailored messaging in targeted media and by physically helping those swing voters get to the polls. Regardless of your political preferences, as a marketer, you have to admire the strategy, the execution and the outcome – a 332-206 electoral victory for Obama, in which he won nine of 10 swing states.
Net, this experience alone would support the notion that digital media can certainly affect the political process on a large scale – at least in terms of winning elections.
So the next question might be “is digital media positively affecting political discourse?”
I don’t know about you, but I get a daily raft of liberal and conservative political messages from my Facebook universe. It often appears to be recast political messaging from the two major political parties and the various SuperPACs. While they are plentiful, are they useful?
I would support the observation of others that at least part of the dysfunction in Washington is that Congress exhibits poor problem-solving skills. As evidence, I point to: (1) a government closed down for an extended period in October; (2) a budgeting process that has to have a sequester mechanism; and (3) a pervasive culture of kicking the can down the road versus addressing complex problems comprehensively.
So if we accept Congress’ poor problem-solving skills as at least part of the issue, then it might be fair to examine how social media is working to help.
My answer: Poorly. Less because of the tool and more due to how it’s being used.
I’m not really sure how the posts I see advance political discourse. Facebook posts frequently stereotype liberals as fiscally irresponsible socialists who are hell-bent on redistributing wealth, and conservatives are presented as uncaring fat cats who seek to build a “have and have not” world.
These all too frequent posts drive divisiveness, as any stereotype does, and fail to use the potentially valuable medium to engage in productive discourse. Worse, it emboldens our elected officials to believe that they, too, can support these intransigent positions rather than engage in real win-win problem-solving. Something we most desperately need in Washington.
So the next time you’re tempted to express your First Amendment rights and share a political post on Facebook, ask yourself a simple question:
Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?
Walter Solomon is Vice President and Chief Growth Officer at Ashland Inc.