In this blog series, I’ve been exploring how media, predominately related to political humor, ultimately effects participatory politics among young people. In my last post, I started to explore how politicians are reacting to the increase in online participatory politics. However, Daniel Kreiss, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC Chapel Hill and author of Taking Our Country Back, brought up an interesting question that I’d like to explore. Studies have proven that there is a correlation between politicians engaging with young people on social media and an increase in votes. The proposed question is, what is the relationship between campaign effects and policy effects? In other words, are politicians increasingly using social media as a campaign tactic to promote policies that appeal to young voters? In addition, what role does Jeffery Alexander’s concept of collective representation play in making these campaign effects ultimately successful?
A good topic to start exploring the correlation between campaign and policy effects relates to the push for gay marriage equality. There is a fairly significant generational gap of support for this issue, with up to 70 percent of millennials favoring legalization. No other age group tops 50 percent for support (Wolf). As I previously discussed, the majority of millennials are social media users. So it makes sense that political candidates, incumbents and lobbyists are turning to social media to promote support for the issue.
Here’s an example. I like to pick on President Obama because to me, he is not only the President of the United States, but is also the President of Social Media. In May 2012, Obama declared his support for gay marriage. While he originally declared his support during an interview with ABC News, it’s the tweet below that spread throughout the Twitterverse (Combs).
What’s the significance here? It’s the timing. Obama came forward with this declaration, his first public position in support of marriage equality, months before the November election. This was an election where he depended on and needed to retain the support of young voters. Using social media to promote a policy that appealed to young people was clearly a campaign tactic. By posting his stance on Twitter, where many of the younger voters are getting their political news, Obama was practicing a new form of political advertising. If a young, progressive person who was torn between voting for Romney and Obama, saw the Obama’s tweet, it’s easy to make the argument that the tweet could sway the voter.
And it’s worth noting the importance of “going viral” here. Sam Laird, of Mashable, reported on the huge social media mention boost that Obama received after his endorsement. (Laird). By going viral, Obama was not only able to inform young people on social media about his policy change, but he also gave young people the power and initiative to spread the news and engage in participatory politics. Obama definitely knew the potential magnitude of this tweet and the buzz it would create for young people going into the campaign season.
While Obama used Twitter to gain voter support, he also used social media to mobilize young voters to support policies that appealed to them. He did this by intertwining official campaign speeches with the promotion of social media elements. When Obama spoke at UNC Chapel Hill in May of 2012, one of the key elements of his speech was asking student to tell members of Congress “don’t double my rate,” referring to student loans. How did he say students should contact their Congress members? Obama said, “Write on their Facebook page. Tweet them—we’ve got a hashtag. Here’s the hashtag for you to tweet them: #dontdoublemyrate. All right? I’m going to repeat that—the hashtag is #dontdoublemyrate” (Slack). It’s remarkable to hear a politician encouraging students to go on social media and use hashtags to get involved in politics. But it’s not remarkable since Obama has already shown that he knows the full magnitude of influence that social media has on campaigns. So while Obama initially used social media as a campaign strategy to get people talking about his policies, he has also used social media to as a tactic for implementing policies.
Obama really implemented this new campaign effect and I believe that more and more politicians will be turning to social medias as the 2016 campaign season approaches. More conservative politicians like Rand Paul, who appeals to many younger voters, is already an active social media user and it will be interesting to see if he makes more of a shift to primarily campaigning over social media, assuming he stays in the race. But the remaining question is: why is this campaign effect so influential?
To answer this question, I turn to Jeffrey Alexander’s idea of collective representation. Alexander argues that successful politicians are able to collectively represent the public through values that the American public holds most dear (Alexander 17). With a growing generational gap between millennials and older generations, young people today report less trust and more cynicism towards politicians (Stolberg). Social media can help mend the value of “relatability” for young people. Obama and The White House have posted Instagrams referencing pop-culture, like Mean Girls, (see below) and other politicians has posted similar sentiments that may make younger people stop and think, “Hey, he’s just like us!,” resulting in a vote.
On a deeper level than Mean Girls, a politician’s expertise of social media ultimately shows that politicians are aware of the changing media landscape and can identify with the new form of participatory politics. If young people see a politician communicating in way that is similar to his or her own habits, that young person may view the politician as more trustworthy, intelligent and overall, more relatable.
With social media changing day-to-day, it’s hard to image what it will look like during the heat of the 2016 election. Obama has expertly used social media to promote policies that appeal to young people in his campaign and he has successfully done this because he’s been able to represent the value of “relatability” to young people. Policy effects do have a huge influence on the type of campaigns politicians run and it will be interesting to see how the role of social grows in this process.
Alexander, Jeffrey The Performance of Politics. Oxford, 2010. Print.
Combs, J. (2013). Bending toward justice: A reflection on president obama’s marriage equality announcement one year later . Huffington Post, Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jacob-combs/bending-toward-justice-a-reflection-on-president-obamas-marriage-equality-announcement-one-year-later_b_3239548.html
Laird, S. (2012). Obama gets huge twitter sentiment boost after gay marriage support. Mashable Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2012/05/09/obama-twitter-gay-marriage/
Slack, Megan. “President Obama Asks Students to Tell Congress: DontDoubleMyRate.” White House Gov. n. page. Web. 3 Nov. 2013. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/04/24/president-obama-asks-students-tell- congress-dontdoublemyrate>.
Wolf, Richard. “Young people, flip-floppers fuel surge for gay marriage.” USA Today. n.page. Web. 31 Oct.2013.<http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/03/20/gay-marriage-pew-poll/2003545/>.