Tonight, I'll be providing coverage of the first in the nation New Hampshire primary on ABC's local affiliate, WCVB, here in Boston. In comparison to many years past, the 2012 Republican race got off to a late start and has been turbulent, if entertaining to a Progressive. Candidates' poll numbers have shot up seemingly out of nowhere and dropped off just as fast. One thing that hasn't changed from 2008 is the pervasive use of social media on the campaign trail by candidates, voters, and the media. This is my fourth presidential cycle in the internet and politics business, so here are the five social media trends I think have been most unique in the 2012 race so far:
1) An election in the digital age is driven by "micro stories" (I learned this term from Kelefa Sanneh) -- events that burst into the news cycle, get promoted on blogs and social media sites and then are quickly replaced by another micro event. Rick Santorum was heckled at two separate events in NH during the past week for his position on gay rights. His fashion choices have also proven viral -- his ubiquitous sweater vest even has its own Twitter account, @fearricksvest. Jon Huntsman's daughters shot to internet fame for their parody of Herman Cain's bizarre ad depicting his campaign manager smoking. These micro stories tend to dominate the online space for a short amount of time and can make it difficult for a consistent overarching narrative to emerge.
2) Ron Paul would not be where he is without the internet. And even though he's 76 years old, you know he understands the value of the internet and social media. This savvy stands in stark contrast to Sen. John McCain's self-professed ignorance 4 years ago when he admitted he did not know how to use a computer and called the internet the "interwebs." This online presence has also helped Rep. Paul raise cash fast. Paul raised $13 million in the last quarter of 2011. One of his most unique tactics is the "money bomb" -- a single planned day when Paul supporters donate online all at once. One money bomb raised $4 million in December alone. Paul was also ahead of the social media curve in 2008. An aggressive grassroots "Google Ron Paul" campaign helped raise his awareness ahead of the NH primary in a state where few were previously familiar with the Texas congressman.
3) The irony of this GOP Primary is that the many, many debates have actually brought back a real, old fashioned sense of democracy. Crowds up in NH been smaller because people feel they know the candidates. This has happened outside the bounds of 30 second television spots, web videos, and blogging. It's kind of awesome. So far, 15 debates have been held and two more are scheduled in the next two weeks running up to the South Carolina primary.
4) In 2008, we were all awed at social media and the election. All you had to do was host an "e" event and you'd get press and the youth But now, social media is so integral to the news cycle it's not cool anymore to just have a "YouTube Town Hall" like happened in 2008 in South Carolina, or a Facebook sponsored debate in NH. No one blinks an eye. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are part of the established dialogue and media establishment. Of the two debates over this past weekend, one was co-sponsored by Facebook. But the bigger story was the debate was happening just a few hours after one the previous night. Every debate has had a corresponding hashtag Twitter users utilized to discuss the debate in real time. Twitter and live blogging on news sites and political blogs give commentary in real time. The punditry that was once left to the professionals in the spin room is being blogged and tweeted as the debate progresses.
5) Candidate use of social media soared in 2008, but this year will see greater analysis and tracking of social media use both by candidates and voters. Washington Post's Mention Machine tracks mentions of candidates, revealing who people are talking about at any given moment. It also provides an interesting comparison to what the media are talking about in the same moment. For example, Ron Paul receives more mentions than any other candidate online, but trails in mentions in the mainstream media. Mentions, however, shouldn't be equated with good publicity. It is difficult to measure the sentiment of hundreds of thousands of tweets, blog posts, and Facebook statuses. Just because a candidate receives lots of mentions online doesn't mean those mentions are all positive.
What do you see happening out there on the Interwebs that's new and exciting?
Follow Morra Aarons-Mele on Twitter: www.twitter.com/morraam