Social media has provided a newer, more direct forum in which politicians talk to people. However, social media’s biggest impact on politics arguably has less to do with politicians talking, and more to do with them listening.
Presidents and presidential candidates have long reached people through national television, rallies and the like. But until recently, talking to politicians meant writing a letter one could only pray would reach its intended audience, attending a rally in hopes of grabbing a moment of the candidate’s time, or being quoted in a news article that the candidate might see.
Even if one’s words reached the candidate, neither he nor the candidate would know if he was alone in his beliefs.
Similarly, if a presidential candidate wanted to know how the public viewed him, his campaign would need to hire pollsters, and try to glean how people felt about him while meeting them on the campaign trail or reading articles quoting the average Joe.
While these methods are still valuable, social media has chipped away at pollsters’ monopoly on public opinion data and the wall between the people and politicians.
When a presidential candidate tweets, his staff can immediately watch the responses roll in from thousands of people all over America. If a majority of responses from people belonging to one group — whether that group be women, people who are pro-choice, people who live in Arizona, etc. — share certain commonalities, one can learn how that group feels about the candidate’s stance on an issue or the candidate overall. These qualitative data are often imperfect, but help build a more thorough understanding, especially when they supplement pollsters’ findings.
Never before has so much immediate feedback from so many different people been possible.
Social media also provides a venue for quantitative data. When a candidate posts on Facebook, for example, the campaign can see people’s reactions and try to ascertain the reasons for them. If people liked what Mitt Romney’s team posted about immigration, many would share the post. If they wanted to learn more about President Obama’s view of the economy, they would click the link. If they’re not taking any actions on a post, there may also be a reason. Experts are able to dive far deeper into this and other data, and learn what people are thinking about the candidate.
This isn’t just valuable for candidates and campaigns, but for the people in whose opinions they are interested.
Instant feedback increases the potential of both the candidate’s responsiveness and accountability to the public. Because candidates are able to watch public opinion shift quickly, one would think they would simply adjust their stances in accordance with those changes and flip-flop on issues. Fortunately, the internet is searchable and, when candidates flip-flop on issues, their old stance is readily available after a quick Google search. That means it’s easier than ever for candidates to be receptive to the sentiments of Americans, while harder for them to get away with changing their stances for political gain.
This instant feedback also allows candidates to understand the potential impact of their policies. For example, when President Obama posts on Facebook about a new plan, people provide frequent and often quite vociferous feedback. If someone realizes that a policy would have unintended consequences, he’ll comment. While the comments section is best known for vitriolic debates, it also provides a setting for increased participation by the people in government. Comments, tweets, and other postings can gain traction if they resonate, and then will likely come before the campaign’s or president’s eyes.
If a policy has the potential to violate constitutional liberties, the astute man on the street can make it known and spread the word on social media in an instant. If people agree with the sentiment, it can be shared and reach an exponentially increasing audience.
Not long ago, a politician would hope to have a little birdy inform him of the public climate. Now anyone can be heard with a tweet.
• Shoshana Weissmann is web producer for The Weekly Standard.
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