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Alex Palombo Headshot

The Presidential Campaign Turns to the Interwebs

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Twitter: Barack Obama
Twitter: Barack Obama

Looking back to the 2008 presidential campaign, a lot of media attention focused in on how effectively President Obama utilized social networking sites to reach voters -- particularly, young adults -- and spread his policy message to a wider audience. The OFA campaign saw the potential for fundraising, fact-checking and mobilization and took advantage of the rapidly growing online base. Looking to this 2012 campaign, it's as if there was no other way to campaign but to have a Facebook account, a Twitter handle, a clever Tumblr blog and an active online following.

In the past week, both the Obama and Romney campaigns have ventured even further into online culture to advance their campaigns -- albeit in very different ways. Mitt Romney's campaign became the first political campaign to buy a trending topic on Twitter, while Barack Obama became the first president to participate in an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit.

For the unfamiliar, an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit -- commonly referred to as an AMA -- is exactly what it sounds like. A famous Reddit user, or "Redditor," volunteers to answer any question asked of them by any other user. The forum is loosely moderated, and questions can range from "What are your thoughts on net neutrality?" to "Do you prefer boxers or briefs?"

Given the audience of the AMA -- at least 29,000 Internet users, mostly younger and tech-savvy -- the most prevalent questions were those concerning Internet freedom, net neutrality, and plans to help recent graduates with employment, with Obama saying their fears are legitimate, and laying out exactly how he wanted to work on that problem.

While Obama was busy with the AMA -- and crashing the server in the process (oops) -- Mitt Romney's campaign took to Twitter to increase its social media visibility. In addition to tweeting regular news to the more than 950,000 followers of the @MittRomney account, the campaign purchased the trending topic #BelieveInAmerica to be used to inspire conservative voters and rally the young conservative base. The promoted tweet reads: "With the right steps & the right leadership, the 21st century can & will be an American century #BelieveInAmerica."

The tweet perfectly lines up with everything Romney has been saying for the last months/years of his campaign: The current leadership has failed the country and the economy, and with undisclosed steps and Romney/Ryan leadership, people can once again believe in America.

What really struck me was how emblematic the two social media strategies were of the two campaigns. The idea of the Reddit AMA is to be transparent and open to questioning. It's commonly used by celebrities, particularly those with large Internet followings -- Reddit has run AMAs with subjects like Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings, comedian Louis CK, football player Terry Crews, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. The idea of a promoted tweet or trending topic is to promote a product or message. It's commonly used by companies and corporations -- Twitter has run promoted trending topics and tweets for users like Volkswagen, Papa John's Pizza, Ford Motors and Google.

The Obama campaign's participation in the AMA sends the message that the president is transparent and open to questions -- despite the fact that he didn't answer every question asked in the forum. It sends the message that he's willing to try emerging Internet methods and trendy websites to reach younger voters -- it's not every day a politician willingly goes to the land of trolls and LOLs to answer questions about net neutrality and youth unemployment.

The Romney campaign's purchase of the #BelieveInAmerica trending topic sends the message that Romney isn't interested in seeming transparent -- we already knew this from the tax return debate. It's using a traditionally corporate marketing strategy to show Romney's interest in getting this country back on track with the right leadership, without telling people how, exactly, he plans on doing that (convenient that Twitter only allows 140 characters, with little opportunity for elaboration). And it shows that while he is interested in reaching a wide base of people, he could use a little more experience with how to do that -- he has 950,000-plus followers, compared to President Obama's more than 19 million, and the #BelieveInAmerica trending topic has gathered more mockery than support.

Everyone can agree that the social media is great for giving an inside look at a political candidate. But it's how the social media is used that gives perhaps the best picture.