Direct communication via social media? Not for most politicians, no

Last week, Frank Bruni from the New York Times wrote a column trotting out an old idea—that new technologies like social media allow “direct communication” between politicians and the people, circumventing intermediaries like the news media. This is an old idea because it has accompanied many other media technologies before social media, including radio and television.

Bruni asks “Who Needs Reporters?” and highlights how Michele Bachmann used a YouTube video to announce she wouldn’t seek re-election, that Anthony Weiner had taken the same route to announce that he was seeking election, and that Hillary Clinton had announced her support for gay marriage in a web video. In all cases, the politician in question clearly avoided potentially problematic questions from journalists by using YouTube to make newsworthy announcements. He writes:

“[reporters] role and relevance are arguably even more imperiled by politicians’ ability, in this newly wired world of ours, to go around us and present themselves in packages that we can’t simultaneously unwrap. To get a message out, they don’t have to beseech a network’s indulgence. They don’t have to rely on a newspaper’s attention. The Bachmann, Weiner and Clinton videos are especially vivid examples of that, reflections and harbingers of an era in which YouTube is the public square, and the fourth estate is a borderline obsolescent one.”

He is arguably right to worry about the diminished importance of professional journalism overall (though the end of journalists as the main gatekeepers between news and the wider population is far from only a bad thing).
But is he right to argue that politicians as a class can circumvent the news media (and paid media, i.e., television advertising) and speak directly to the people via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter? (Even if they could, it wouldn’t really be “direct”, just through new digital intermediaries with their own biases etc.)

Together with my colleague, Cristian Vaccari, I’ve been investigating this question in a more systematic way, looking not only at extreme outliers like Bachmann, Weiner, and Clinton, who all command outsize attention both amongst journalists and on various social media platforms, but also more ordinary politicians.

In a piece of research I’ve already blogged about, we show how the vast majority of congressional candidates, even in competitive, high-stakes, well-funded races, actually reach only a miniscule audience via their various social media profiles. They don’t, in Bruni’s words, have to rely on a newspaper’s attention, for the role of newspapers in the American media landscape is eroding and many other channels are available. But they certainly cannot rely on social media to reach people either, for most people do not follow most politicians online.

Here is the paper we’ve written on the huge variations in how much attention different candidates draw (abstract below), and here is the paper we have written trying to explain the variation.

Do People ‘Like’ Candidates on Facebook? Not Really — From Direct to Indirect and Institutional Effects of Social Media in Politics.

The online popularity of a few exceptional candidates has led many to suggest that social media have given politicians powerful ways of communicating directly with voters. In this paper, we examine whether this is happening on a significant scale and show, based on analysis of 224 candidates involved in competitive races in the 2010 U.S. congressional elections, that the majority of politicians online are in fact largely ignored by the electorate. Citizens’ attention to candidates online approximates power law distributions, with a few drawing many followers while most languish in obscurity. We therefore suggest that the political implications of social media are generally better understood in terms of facilitating indirect communication and institutional change than in terms of direct communication.

Direct communication with the electorate is not what most politicians use social media for (more for influencing the news cycle, connecting with supporters to raise money and mobilize volunteers). Most politicians cannot rely on social media alone to reach voters because people do not seek them out on these “pull” platforms driven by interest. Therefore, campaigns still have to rely on “push” media including ”earned media” (news coverage), television advertising, direct mail, online advertising, and field campaigns with volunteers and paid workers going door to door or hitting the phones.

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