This election cycle, when it comes to winning over voters online, candidates are being pushed to experiment online in order to tease out the serendipitous comments and “a-ha” moments that stand to define their entire campaigns. Whether it’s Pinterest, Twitter or Reddit, they are pulling out all the stops to win over an electorate that increasingly gets its news and opinions in real-time.
This experimentation and real-time news consumption are changing the rules around campaign message control. Take, for example, how the hashtags #Eastwooding and #sexyface exploded on Twitter. Both serve to illustrate the pro’s and con’s of viral, real-time politics.
The #Eastwooding hashtag materialized on the last night of the Republican convention in response to the strange, almost indecipherable, performance of aging Hollywood great Clint Eastwood talking to an invisible President Obama. Suddenly, people were #Eastwooding the same way they were #Tebowing or #planking last year, posting photos of themselves wagging fingers at invisible chairs.
The second hashtag took root after young Hollywood actor Kal Penn, best known for his role in the “Harold and Kumar” films, asked fans to use #sexyface (and not, for example, the more widely-used #DNC2012) in any reference to his speech. Penn’s call-out, aside from a jab at Eastwood’s RNC appearance, was a not-so-subtle nod to that fact that the serendipitous and, yes, the silly, are often what make headlines these days.
Which is not to say that you have to resort to Internet pranks or social media jujitsu to win over potential voters. The Twitterverse fell in love with @MichelleObama after her speech in defense of her husband’s record. On a tweet-per-minute basis, Michelle pulled in nearly twice as many tweets as Mitt Romney during his acceptance speech. But here’s the key — the Obama campaign had a Flickr photo of the President alongside daughters Malia and Sasha ready and waiting for the Internet hordes, anticipating exactly what the Web’s backroom channels wanted: To see how Barack was taking it all in. (Perhaps this was the results of a lesson learned from another Flickr photo “leaked” to the media showing Barack in his war room when the Navy Seals were taking down Osama bin Laden). In social media parlance, the Obama campaign “amplified” the impact of Michelle’s speech with that single photo.
Get ready for more of the same across social media. Because, while Pew Internet figures may show that people are no longer paying as much attention as we thought to the carefully crafted messages that candidates put up on Facebook — they are paying attention to the type of social media stream-of-consciousness and unscripted moments that excite the folks at Buzzfeed and other meme mother lodes. The same momentum that once forced candidates to appear on comedy shows like Leno, Letterman and Colbert is now forcing them to re-connect in completely new ways that once would have seemed beneath the office of the President. No wonder Barack Obama did an AMA with the Reddit crowd. The AMA — “Ask Me Anything” — was exactly that, with average Internet users being able to pose their questions directly to the President.
It’s easy to see how this type of digital backchannel could become an even bigger factor during the upcoming presidential debates. Just as TV is commonly cited as a deciding factor in the first televised Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, social media may be cited as a deciding factor in the Obama-Romney debates of 2012. A common tweet during both conventions involved the “fact check” — the real-time analysis on Twitter of whether a point made during a speech was true or not. Imagine that same type of behind-the-scenes scoring and fact-checking taking place during the debates, while simultaneously, other political backers transform TV screen captures into animated GIFs and dream up suitable hashtags to prop up their candidate — or take down their opponent.
As a political candidate these days, there is no way to prepare for this new and evolving landscape — except to do this: Be yourself and be ready to engage in a fun give-and-take with average people who care deeply about the country. The Internet doesn’t want carefully crafted speeches or perfectly scripted events. What the Internet wants are all the unscripted moments that have them scrambling to create fake Twitter accounts, all the serendipitous “a-ha” moments that have them racing to post clever comments online and all the new trending topics that reinforce the belief that they — not the candidate — are, in fact, the news.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."
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