Treat online campaigns not as ends in themselves, but as complements to a sophisticated ground operation.
The elections of 2013 may not have been the “social media election” that political analysts have been waiting for, but there’s still plenty of talk about what effects it may have had on the results of this election.
One focus of conversation is the apparent disparity between internet “buzz” – that is, the breadth and intensity of conversation about particular candidates – and their standing in the COMELEC’s (as of now) partial and unofficial results. This is described in an ABS-CBN news article:
ABS-CBN and IBM’s Social Media Tracker shows, however, that Binay is the most talked-about among all 33 senatorial aspirants. Also in the top three are Risa Hontiveros and Dick Gordon, who were not included in the list of the coveted top 12…
…On the other hand, some of the candidates leading in the Senate race as shown on the latest Comelec data actually lag in terms of social media presence.
[Grace] Poe, who has already garnered 14,688,540 votes as of 9:28 a.m., is trailing behind Binay, Hontiveros and Gordon on the social media tracker. [Loren] Legarda, who has consistently topped pre-election surveys and is currently in second place with 13,445,501 votes, only ranked 13 on the tracker.
Looking at these numbers, it’s probably true: the “buzz” generated by a candidate on the internet (especially social media sites) probably has no significant effect on the wider electorate. But that observation obscures a crucial question: what was the effect of internet campaigning on the 30% of Filipinos with internet access? Why do some candidates still take great pains to cultivate a dedicated social media following, in addition to using more effective campaign tools such as motorcades and advertisements? Why even bother running more than a token social media campaign?
This is because social media is a relatively cost-effective way to reach that aforementioned 30%. A well-crafted meme or testimonial can quickly spread among thousands of Facebook and Twitter feeds at little cost and get potential middle-class voters talking. The adeptness of Gordon and Hontiveros’s followers at the art of viral posts has propelled them to the top of the “buzz” indices. But why the almost exclusive emphasis on “buzz” when talking about the effectiveness of online campaigning? If “buzz” was so indicative of the success of these campaigns, why hasn’t this translated into a winning voter base for candidates?
The answer is that “buzz” is currently a next-to-useless metric. Conversations, whether online or offline, do not necessarily translate into success at the polls. Parties and candidates – or at least their online handlers – have fallen prey to the misconception that the only goal of internet campaigning is to generate this “buzz.” Little emphasis has been placed on collecting data or encouraging tangible participation from voters. The result is this: online campaigns that have been used less as adjuncts to more effective offline campaigns than ends in themselves.
I suspect this is why candidates’ home pages and social media profiles have focused more on talking about positive news stories and “voter vigilance” (without providing ways to volunteer and be vigilant) rather than on-the-ground contributions from netizens, such as volunteering their time and money. The tendency towards this more passive approach to political participation surprisingly also shows up in the supposedly activist campaigns of progressive groups (scroll down the Facebook pages for Akbayan and Kabataan partylist for examples), showing the near-ubiquity of this mindset. This results in online campaigns falling far short of their potential, to the detriment of the reformist candidates who benefit from them most.
Consider this hypothetical: if a small proportion of the younger netizens Randy David suspects were too young to vote volunteered for their favored candidates, might that have made a significant impact on the vote totals? Maybe not now. But this initial experience may put them on a path towards greater political participation and activism, with voter outreach efforts improving as a result of a larger political organization.
Or this one: might the trickle of online-referred donations have been enough to pay for even one prime time ad? Probably not as well. But at least the campaign has the beginnings of a contributor list that you can use in every succeeding election. It’s probably also identified the people more likely to volunteer for your candidate as well. Here, “buzz” is not useless as well; one can now use “buzz” (especially on public forums like Twitter) to single out potential voters/donors/volunteers and tailor messages to their needs accordingly.
These are but a few ways by which online campaign strategists can make use of the resources possessed by their targeted middle classes. If these tactics sound familiar, they should – these are just a few of the ways the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns made use of information and communications technologies in their winning lap to the White House.1 Despite their massive online operation, Obama’s team never neglected their ground game, which their technological edge only bolstered.
For now the widespread use of more sophisticated online methods will be constrained by other factors, the biggest being their cost-effectiveness relative to conventional methods of campaigning. This approach could probably be adapted piecemeal to individual campaigns. But as the Philippine middle class grows and internet penetration grows, these suggestions may perhaps be worth revisiting in full.
1 It is widely accepted that the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns marked innovative steps forward for using the internet in political campaigns. However, the exact effectiveness of these campaigns relative to economic factors (“fundamentals”) has been widely disputed.
About the author
Michael V. Manangu (@michaelmanangu) is a politics and policy researcher, aspiring academic, and a founder and lead author for The Daily Opium. When he’s not trawling bookstores and the Web for awesome reads, you can find him walking the planes (otherwise known as playing Magic: the Gathering) and plotting the downfall of kings in historical strategy games.