Will Social Media Change the Political Process? Has It Already?

by Kat French |

Kat wrote this post.  Just so you don’t think Jason is referring to himself as a “foolish woman” three paragraphs down.   

On this day in 1960, the first televised debate between presidential candidates aired, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.  

At the time of this writing, it’s still up in the air whether or not there will be a similar debate between the current presidential candidates today. 

If I were a far more foolish woman than I am, I would make that potential debate the focus of this post.  Heck, I might even disclose whether I’ve decided who to vote for and if so, who that might be.  (I will admit I’m a registered Independent, which to my mind means I get to make fun of the follies of both parties equally.)

Lucky for you, I’m not that foolish.

It’s probably not an overstatement to say that the Kennedy Nixon debate changed the face of American politics from that point forward.  While most radio listeners considered it a draw, the television viewers, who vastly outnumbered them, felt that Kennedy beat Nixon soundly.  

While Kennedy was sporting a tan and looking typically sharp, Nixon’s appearance ostensibly led to Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago exclaiming, “My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died.”

Once television had a foothold in the living rooms of America, it became the single most prevalent source for information during an election.   It became a force of undeniable power in shaping the outcome of our political process.   We trusted in the journalistic integrity of the professionals who provided the news to give us the unvarnished facts.   We didn’t account for the “varnish” that cameras, makeup, and production values could add to a candidate–or a poor television presence could remove from one.  

Now the web is quickly taking over as the most important media in the lives of Americans.   The Times Online reports that as of this August, more Americans get news from the internet than print or network television.  A UCLA study also found that Americans who use the internet consider it at least as important as newspapers and books—and more important than television, radio, and magazines.

Back in January of this year, K.D. Paine was declaring this “The Social Media Election.”  Even further back, CBC News did a feature on social media’s effect on the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign.

watch?v=vBzjRdEMjEU

According to Pew Internet Research, over a third of Americans have watched online political videos–tripling the data from the 2004 election.  

The explosion of bloggers, as well as other social media creators and promoters, has been a double-edged sword.  Inaccuracies and even outright fabrications about candidates can move across the social web at lightning speed.  Conversely, the turnaround time on responses to those inaccuracies is breathtakingly fast as well.  

And while everyone’s eyes are currently turned to the national stage, online fundraising using social media tools may potentially benefit local, low-profile candidates more than anyone else.  

The whole Ron Paul phenomenon is another case in point.  While Paul didn’t secure a nomination, much less the election, the fact that such a fringe candidate could viably remain in the race as long as he did is a testament to the social web’s ability to mobilize and connect passionate voters.

Time will tell whether or not the scheduled debate will take place, and whether or not the polls of the social web will end up accurately reflecting votes cast.   But one thing seems fairly certain: in the same way that after Nixon and Kennedy, candidates could ignore television at their peril, after 2008 candidates can ill-afford to ignore “those crazy bloggers” and others involved in social media.

image credit Brittanica.com

About the Author

Kat French

Kat French is the Client Services and Content Manager at SME Digital. An exceptional writer, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in content strategy, copywriting, community management and social media marketing. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, CafePress and more.