Elections Are More Than Social Media

Ever since Barack Obama effectively leveraged social media to capture the Democratic presidential nomination over Hilary Clinton, and then won the presidency by outflanking John McCain, social media has been hailed as the silver bullet for political elections.

It’s based on the idea that social media can drive exposure, engagement, platforms and donations to provide politicians with a competitive edge.

Social media is also seen as a powerful way to reach younger voters who have traditionally not been enthusiastic about voting.

Obama’s success has emboldened political parties around the world to enthusiastically embrace social media. At the same time, however, it may have given social media too much credit.

Yes, social media is an effective communications and marketing tool during elections but it is important to remember it’s just one tool that political candidates can use to win the support of voters.

In many respects, elections still rely on traditional tools and techniques. Politicians still need to make public appearances to engage voters and communicate their platforms.

They need to knock on doors, shake hands outside grocery stores, community centres and shopping malls. They need to participate in public debates, put up posters and lawn signs, and make phone calls to solicit support.

In other words, it is difficult, if not impossible to run a digital-only campaign fuelled by social media.

The combination of social media and non-digital activity is front and centre during the election now happening in the Canadian province in which I live, Ontario.

As much as the three main parties – the Liberals, PCs and NDP – have Web sites and are active on Twitter and Facebook, the local candidates and party leaders are out and about – shaking hands, kissing babies, and visiting coffee shops and factories.

Sure, social media is a powerful tool that can be used by politicians to win elections. At the same time, politicians still need to leverage non-digital tools and approaches.

For more thoughts on the value of “door knocking”, check out this Canadian Press story.

  • You’re right to throw the caution flag on social media’s influence on elections. If there’s one thing that demonstrates the echo chamber effect and social media’s lack of universal adoption, it’s elections. I’m not saying it’s not important, or not continuing to grow in importance. I’m saying it’s not a king-maker on its own.

    To be clear, Obama’s campaign built on Howard Dean’s campaign (same digital team) to raise funds online in a truly masterful way. They also used digital to empower their official “door-knocking” volunteers and made it easy for others to spread the message.

    Social media can help test messages, inform the base and get a little word-of-mouth going, but this, so far, hasn’t been enough to win elections. For more perspective, check out Patrick Gladney’s research on the Toronto municipal elections that saw Rob Ford elected in the face of overwhelming negative social media chatter. http://www.patrickgladney.com/my-blog/2010/11/1/why-you-wont-find-many-rob-ford-supporters-on-twitter.html

  • Agree 100%.

    We don’t expect social media to be all we need to successfully market something, so why would anyone expect it to be all you need to win an election. It’s just another tool in the arsenal.

  • Mark Evans


    Thanks for the comment and pointing out the Howard Dean connection. I think what the last Toronto election demonstrated is the socio-demographics of social media users given Rob Ford likely received a lot of support from people who were perhaps not digitally engaged. Mark.

  • Mark Evans

    Great point. Thanks for making that clear! cheers, Mark

  • I agree 99%.

    Completely true that just as in the commercial world, a single channel used to go-to-market is not a successful scheme. However, from what I have seen in the political space, the new tool in their arsenal (social media) is being under utilized.

    The other 1% – This new tool can make many of the tasks that campaigns have simpler, faster and cheaper while reaching more people.

    If you had a nail gun, would you still use a hammer?

    The post link that David provided is a excellent illustration of how you need to take other factors into account when looking at the sentiment offered in social media.