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Ask the Expert: Mark Blevis discusses covering politics with social media

When Barack Obama campaigned and won the US presidential election in 2008, one of the driving and deciding factors in his road to the White House was his use of social media. Obama’s campaign is one that has gone down in history for its innovation. He still had to uphold American campaigning traditions – kissing babies, shaking hands, attending rallies, holding fundraising dinners. But he also used social media and web-based technologies to reach a younger, “wired” generation – a strategic approach that John McCain, his Republican opponent, failed to take full advantage of.

Gearing up for the 2012 election, social media is sure to play an even greater role – from a couple of different angles. Public-facing, many candidates will use social media to mobilize their constituents and publicize news, like Obama did in 2008. With the incredible pace and evolution of social media, none of us really know all of the channels and networks and technologies that will play a part. Beth Fouhy of The Huffington Post wrote, “Strategists also say the greatest digital innovation in 2012 may not even have surfaced yet, even as campaigns figure out how to do effective microtargeting ads for Facebook and work to develop ‘apps’ for smart phones rather than laptops and traditional TV.”

On the back-end, journalists can use social media to find out what’s trending and what issues are most important to voters, which could lead to a story idea, viable sources or new leads. But, because social media has grown exponentially since 2008, the vast amount of online information – some good, some not-so-good — has made the ability to listen to those conversations a difficult task, if all you have at your disposal is a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

As society becomes more and more invested in social media, journalists need to up their game, too, by automating their listening processes. Social media monitoring tools provide a way to efficiently listen to what’s going on in the social sphere and, because of them, allow journalists to concentrate on other aspects of the editorial process (i.e., reporting, writing, editing).

Strategists are paying attention

Political and social media strategists are already on board. Mark Blevis, a digital public affairs strategist, followed the 2011 Canadian federal election using Sysomos MAP (Media Analysis Platform) to mine real-time data that only social media could provide: where conversations were taking place, what issues were hot and for how long, etc. (Read Mark’s one-page case study or check out brief Q&A video segments that delve into specific issues.)

Similarly, social media consultant Paul Wittenberg and two colleagues analyzed the 2010 California gubernatorial race between Jerry Brown, an old-school politician, and Meg Whitman, a high-tech businesswoman. Initially, they wanted to validate their own hypotheses surrounding social media and traditional polling, which they did. But Sysomos MAP also came up with a zinger:  one of the possible reasons for Whitman’s defeat.

Both Mark and Paul feel that they have only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what social media can do for campaigns, elections and the political process in general. Even this early in the game, it will be interesting to see how journalists will use it to cover the election, specifically, how they will listen – and respond to – the real-time conversations and data that social media affords.

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