Last Friday I was invited to speak at a conference put on by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, titled "Voting Goes Viral: Using New Media to Manage an Election and Communicate with Voters."
The conference, which included officials from electoral institutions (including Alysoun McLaughlin from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics), policy experts, academics, and journalists, sought to explore how new media and social networking have affected elections, both in terms of campaigns and the actual process of putting on an election.
A lot was discussed, but below are some of the basic points I brought up:
It's Not Yet Clear That New Media and Social Networks Have Changed Local Elections: Though the number and type of people using social networks like Twitter and Facebook are on the rise, I argued that it's tough to claim that either one has really re-defined how campaigns are run or has encouraged new people to vote in local elections.
Take the District's recent elections, for example. In last year's mayoral primary, the guy who was probably liked by the sorts of people that most actively use Twitter and Facebook (Mayor Adrian Fenty, that is) didn't have much of a new media strategy at all, nor did his well-connected supporters prove numerous or influential enough to swing the primary in his favor. (Mayor Vince Gray, on the other hand, had a very active Twitter account, though the majority of his supporters likely weren't active Twitter users.) I argued that while things might be changing, participation and preference in the District are still moved primarily by traditional associations like church groups, civic organizations, etc. As for the April 26 Special Election, well, for all the noise we tried to make on Twitter (including a dedicated hashtag, #four26dc), turnout was pretty much what would have been expected for a special election.
Twitter and Facebook may be fantastic tools for spreading information and making connections, but they're still relatively unproven quantities when it comes to how campaigns use them (if at all), if they help shape people's perceptions of specific races or if they can encourage new groups to cast ballots.
Twitter is a Great Institutional Tool: Both McLaughlin and I (not to mention other election officials) spoke about how Twitter is a wonderful tool for electoral organizations to use.
I see two principal benefits: Twitter can be used to detail and de-mystify the whole process of how elections come to be and serve as a means by which residents and voters interact with their electoral institution. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics effectively used the tool to unpack the entire special election process (listing which candidates had turned in nominating petitions, for example, or listing changes to polling places), not to mention respond to resident concerns regarding voter registration, etc.
I stressed that any electoral institution that uses Twitter or Facebook needs to use it as tool to converse with its friends and followers, not simply bark messages at them. And even though the number of people following D.C. BOEE on Twitter is small relative to the number of registered voters (under 1,000 followers, over 450,000 registered voters), the type of people that follow the agency and the ability they have to quickly re-tweet messages to their own followers means that important news and information can quickly spread to the people that need it most.
Twitter Doesn't Make for Transparency: Though Twitter and Facebook are easy to use and can contribute greatly to transparency, they won't serve as a substitute for actual transparency. An opaque electoral institution that uses Twitter doesn't become any more open, accountable or transparent just because it's using it. Twitter and Facebook can amplify existing transparency, not create it.
We also discussed how Twitter has changed the dynamic of reporting on the results of elections, both for better and for worse. It's great that anyone can tweet results from their local precinct before the votes are uploaded to the BOEE website on election night, but it certainly makes for a confusing crush of partial results and speculation as all votes are tallied.
All of this having been said, it should be interesting to see how Twitter, Facebook and other services and tools play into the coming 2012 D.C. elections. I'm going to be watching to see not only which campaigns actively use social media, but also which ones actually get social media. I'm also curious to see if both can be more effectively used to shape people's opinions and drive individuals that wouldn't otherwise vote to the ballot box. I think we'll see some more movement than we did in 2010, but not nearly as much as we'll see in 2014, 2016 and so on.