As the 2012 presidential race ever so slowly gains momentum it remains clear that social media will be influencing elections for a long time to come. In the long run, does the shift towards social media campaigning change who is perceived to be a legitimate candidate? If so, social media might change who wins elections and therefore changes how we are governed. Avoiding [for now] the issue of whether social media has inherent tendencies towards the left or right, what I want to ask is: opposed to old media, does new media benefit political underdogs and outsiders?
As Republicans announce presidential bids on Twitter and Obama gets friendly with Zuckerberg and Facebook, it seems that the presidential campaign has found itself augmented by and reliant upon social media tools; some of the very same tools many of us use, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on. Part of their popularity is that one can view and be viewed by people from all over the world in an instant and for no cost. It does not cost money to publish this post or to tweet about it later on. Social media campaigning is also relatively cheap; indeed, often times free. Alternatively, print advertising is expensive because space is scarce and the scarcity of broadcast time makes television and radio too costly for underdogs and outsiders to fairly compete. However, when we exchange atoms for bits we enter into a world of abundance, a world where broadcasting a message quickly and globally becomes cheap and easy.
This cheaper social-media campaign style may remove or at least lesson the barriers to entry for candidates now considered too marginal to be legitimate. As the major national parties support well-known figures often with pedigree bloodlines and major corporate backers, major campaigns are simply too costly for many outsiders to become serious contenders. Many have argued from both sides of the aisle that American politics is far too controlled by money. Things grew more heated when the Supreme Court controversially stated that corporations should be treated as citizens when it comes to free political speech, thereby greatly increasing their ability to influence elections. However, social media allows anyone to create a presence and communicate one’s political ideas to anyone with an Internet connection. Today, your potential audience on Twitter is the same as Barak Obama’s.
Well, theoretically at least.
Even if all campaigning went the way of social media [and it won’t, campaigning will increasingly be an augmentation of social media, old media and on-the-ground efforts], offline inequalities tend to be replicated online. Social media is not the “flat world” so-called cyberlibertarians describe, where ideas rise to the top based only on their merit. Instead, those with the most fame and notoriety offline have a massive advantage when it comes to garnering Facebook “friends” and Twitter “followers” online. Being an incumbent, having the support of a major party, and having lots of cash-on-hand are by far the most important factors in gaining a successful social media presence. While social media campaigning and fundraising may be cheap, building an impressive Internet platform like the highly effective my.barakobama.com is not. It seems unlikely that social media will bring a massive “revival of American democracy” by ushering in an age of candidates gaining popularity based on merit alone. Simply, the Internet is not flat.
While not the magic bullet for American democracy, will social media’s potential democratization of campaigning and fundraising reduce, if even slightly, the barriers for entry to the political process?