May the best Tweeter win : The Twitter strategies of key campaign accounts in the 2012 US election
Bruns, Axel & Highfield, Tim (2016) May the best Tweeter win : The Twitter strategies of key campaign accounts in the 2012 US election. In Bieber, Christoph & Kamps, Klaus (Eds.) Die US-Präsidentschaftswahl 2012: Analysen der Politik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft. Springer Fachmedien, Wiesbaden, pp. 425-442.
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The 2008 US election has been heralded as the first presidential election of the social media era, but took place at a time when social media were still in a state of comparative infancy; so much so that the most important platform was not Facebook or Twitter, but the purpose-built campaign site my.barackobama.com, which became the central vehicle for the most successful electoral fundraising campaign in American history. By 2012, the social media landscape had changed: Facebook and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Twitter are now well-established as the leading social media platforms in the United States, and were used extensively by the campaign organisations of both candidates.
As third-party spaces controlled by independent commercial entities, however, their use necessarily differs from that of home-grown, party-controlled sites: from the point of view of the platform itself, a @BarackObama or @MittRomney is technically no different from any other account, except for the very high follower count and an exceptional volume of @mentions. In spite of the significant social media experience which Democrat and Republican campaign strategists had already accumulated during the 2008 campaign, therefore, the translation of such experience to the use of Facebook and Twitter in their 2012 incarnations still required a substantial amount of new work, experimentation, and evaluation.
This chapter examines the Twitter strategies of the leading accounts operated by both campaign headquarters: the ‘personal’ candidate accounts @BarackObama and @MittRomney as well as @JoeBiden and @PaulRyanVP, and the campaign accounts @Obama2012 and @TeamRomney. Drawing on datasets which capture all tweets from and at these accounts during the final months of the campaign (from early September 2012 to the immediate aftermath of the election night), we reconstruct the campaigns’ approaches to using Twitter for electioneering from the quantitative and qualitative patterns of their activities, and explore the resonance which these accounts have found with the wider Twitter userbase.
A particular focus of our investigation in this context will be on the tweeting styles of these accounts: the mixture of original messages, @replies, and retweets, and the level and nature of engagement with everyday Twitter followers. We will examine whether the accounts chose to respond (by @replying) to the messages of support or criticism which were directed at them, whether they retweeted any such messages (and whether there was any preferential retweeting of influential or – alternatively – demonstratively ordinary users), and/or whether they were used mainly to broadcast and disseminate prepared campaign messages. Our analysis will highlight any significant differences between the accounts we examine, trace changes in style over the course of the final campaign months, and correlate such stylistic differences with the respective electoral positioning of the candidates.
Further, we examine the use of these accounts during moments of heightened attention (such as the presidential and vice-presidential debates, or in the context of controversies such as that caused by the publication of the Romney “47%” video; additional case studies may emerge over the remainder of the campaign) to explore how they were used to present or defend key talking points, and exploit or avert damage from campaign gaffes. A complementary analysis of the messages directed at the campaign accounts (in the form of @replies or retweets) will also provide further evidence for the extent to which these talking points were picked up and disseminated by the wider Twitter population.
Finally, we also explore the use of external materials (links to articles, images, videos, and other content on the campaign sites themselves, in the mainstream media, or on other platforms) by the campaign accounts, and the resonance which these materials had with the wider follower base of these accounts. This provides an indication of the integration of Twitter into the overall campaigning process, by highlighting how the platform was used as a means of encouraging the viral spread of campaign propaganda (such as advertising materials) or of directing user attention towards favourable media coverage.
By building on comprehensive, large datasets of Twitter activity (as of early October, our combined datasets comprise some 3.8 million tweets) which we process and analyse using custom-designed social media analytics tools, and by using our initial quantitative analysis to guide further qualitative evaluation of Twitter activity around these campaign accounts, we are able to provide an in-depth picture of the use of Twitter in political campaigning during the 2012 US election which will provide detailed new insights social media use in contemporary elections. This analysis will then also be able to serve as a touchstone for the analysis of social media use in subsequent elections, in the USA as well as in other developed nations where Twitter and other social media platforms are utilised in electioneering.
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