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Candidates’ supporters unsure of social media’s impact, reach

@presidentialcandidates, Twitter and other social media may not sway voters nor encourage debate in the current election cycle.

Shortly after the Iowa caucuses, social media news groups Mashable and Globalpoint published a “Twitter sentiment analysis” that measured the volume of tweets related to each candidate on the eve of the contest, claiming that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s win should not have come as a surprise. The analysis, which was published before Iowa was declared for Santorum, noted the huge disparity between Santorum’s support in NBC/Marist and Twitter pre-Iowa polling data—a sign that Twitter may be a better indicator of public opinion.

But avid tweeters and social media experts are skeptical of the actual influence of social media on election results.

The excitement and immediacy of social media interaction may preclude actual debate, said David Sparks, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in political science, whose research focuses on the intersection of social media and politics. Social media is more useful for disseminating information rather than promoting political discussion.

“The information passed through social media appears to focus almost exclusively on the ‘horse race,’” Sparks said. “Social media has the potential to be much more heterogeneous and targeted, which may mean that potential voters end up seeking information that reinforces their own beliefs.”

In addition to social media’s self-selecting methods, the textual and more impersonal nature of social media hinders the ability to effectively engage in political debate, said freshman Ryan Gaylord, the owner and promoter of the Ron Paul-supporting Twitter domain “StudentsforPaul.”

“Social media is good for solidifying people’s positions, but in my experience, political debates on Facebook never end well,” Gaylord said. “It’s really difficult to have a substantive debate over text—I prefer face-to-face.”

Twitter, blogs and other online outlets, however, speak to a very politically important voting demographic—college students, noted sophomore Daniel Strunk, who runs the Facebook page for the grassroots organization “N.C. College Students for Romney.” College students will be particularly important in the coming election due to the state of the jobs market.

Gaylord noted that Twitter polls and social media sentiment are not adequate representations of the voting population, given that younger people are more likely to use these devices.

Gaylord noted the discrepancy between Rep. Ron Paul’s, R-Texas, online following and his primary election results.

“Facebook polls and Twitter polls that the major news outlets conduct are just flooded by Paul votes,” Gaylord said. “You can’t really take those as representative of the voting population. He definitely has a larger proportion of youth behind him than the other Republicans.”

When it comes to actual debate and poll influence, social media is overpowered by stronger voting motivations, such as political history of the candidate, debate skills and incumbency, Gaylord said.

He also said he doubts the Republican frontrunners’ capacity to effectively use social media, comparing their relatively weak social media presence to the booming activity coming from the camps of Paul and President Barack Obama. Given that Newt Gingrich—winner of the South Carolina primary Saturday—and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney appeal to an older demographic, their Twitter feed misrepresents them, he added.

“Right now, I can’t foresee Romney or Gingrich getting [Paul’s or Obama’s] sort of internet enthusiasm behind them,” Gaylord said. “What we saw from Obama in the 2008 election is much stronger than everything that most Republicans have put together thus far.”


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