Will Social Networks Impact The Election?

Todd Zeigler and the Bivings Report led me to an interesting post by Sanford Dickert on his Political Gastronomica site about "the seeming lack of impact social networks have truly had on the 2008 elections so far" (as Zeigler puts it).Discussing the question: Will social networks impact the 2008 presidential election, Dickert writes:

I was asked this question last year by my friend from Wired, after I finished with another campaign, and I can STILL heartily say - even with techpresident's MySpace, Facebook and YouTube counters - I believe that social networks will still NOT impact the coming 2008 election. "Wha?", I hear my poli-tech friends gasp. "Didn't you read the study that shows Facebook numbers are an indicator of relative success of drawing voters?" "Weren't you at the Facebook Political Summit ?" "Aren't you impressed by / using the new Facebook tools?" "Aren't you impressed by the incredible reach of all of the candidates and their supporters through MySpace, facebook, flickr, YouTube?". No. And why not? I think they are missing an essential ingredient: simple, human contact.

Dickert finally concludes:

When I go to the local mall, county fair, outdoor market - I can often see the ardent supporters of candidates "tabling" in the flow of traffic - holding their campaign literature, sign at the edge of the table, looking for eyes that are ready to learn more about the person running for State Senate, Congress or even President. You and your friends are there, giving each other moral support as the throngs of people walk by - nary paying attention to you, until a person walks up and says, "So....tell me about Senator X."Where are the Virtual Tablers?This is where the campaigns can use their volunteers and give them the power to reach across their own networks and chat up people when they are interested in learning more about the candidate. But, it is not easy to go and "speak" to someone in Facebook since all of the communications are not interrupt-driven (as a face-to-face might be), they are addressed whenever the receiver wants to. How do you get people to accept the interrupts? Usually, that is the sense of presence - of human contact. Once that magic ingredient is "captured" and enabled, then I could see social networks truly engaging people.

Dickert might make a relevant point, to a certain extent, but we still feel that this is not the last word.

Our point is that claiming social networks will NOT impact the coming 2008 election because they do not have the ability to – as Dickert puts it – "chat up" people limits many factors about these networks that really might have the ability to impact the election.

Take a site like "One Million Against Hillary Clinton" (Facebook), that encourages people to go viral and recruit friends and neighbours to join them in the fight to stop Hillary Clinton. A sight like this might not have a direct impact on people's voting behaviour. But when it makes CNN because of its viral marketing ability, it has certainly had an impact on the new agenda.

Also, take the "Vote Different" video on YouTube that attacks Hillary Clinton. This video has been viewed by over 3.8 million people. Saying that this video has not had an impact on the election is like saying that ads in general have no impact on elections.

Other notable examples for communities that have the potential to exercise influence on the voting process: moveon.org or getup.org.au. Both caused quite some stir in the political establishments of the respective countries they are active in.

It also seems that Sanford somehow equates human contact with an invasion of privacy and can't seem to accept the fact that people are now able to escape the mall stands and make their own informed choices. This eventually gives the impression that he has an outdated model of the voter respectively of campaigning which sees the voter as somehow without agency. In the internet now this invasion of privacy just isn't possible anymore (except for spam) but the voters are the ones in charge. And we better get used to it – if we need to resort to interrupting peoples' lives as a major way to attract voters then we should really worry about our other campaigning techniques and what went wrong with them.

Also on a more basic level the question is: How do we measure impact? Larry M. Bartels (1993, p. 267), once said that the state of research in the "media effects" area is "one of the most notable embarrassments of modern social science". Over time theorists have gone from claiming that the media have had a strong, almost hypodermic effect that can shape opinions and beliefs, to suggesting that the media have only a minimal effect on citizens because they can not deliver political messages with any predictable effect.

On the other hand theories about agenda setting testify to the power media can have over the community. But then again: Social networks can set their own agendas and influence political discourses.

Eventually we don't think that we have come to a stage where we in the "social network effects" area can exclude a hypothesis stating that social networks CAN or WILL impact the coming 2008 election. The reason: We ultimately do not yet have a clear enough understanding of how we can measure the impact of social networks.

Berelson (in Diamond & Bates 1984, p. 347) once said, musing about his own findings in the "media effects" area over the years, that: "some kinds of communication on some kinds of issues, brought to the attention of some kinds of people under some kinds of conditions, have some kinds of effects" (in Diamond & Bates 1984, p. 347).

So, in Berelson's words, our understanding for now is: that social networks on some kind of issues, brought to attention of some kinds of people under some kinds of conditions, may have some kinds of effects – also on the coming 2008 election.

Espen & Jens