This story first appeared on The Laramie Boomerang

'E-Deomocracy' the new 'grassroots'

By Joshua Roberts; November 19, 2012 

President Barack Obama’s victories securing the White House in 2008 and 2012, guest speakers at the University of Wyoming said this week, can be partially attributed to his campaign’s strategic use of social media, a critical tool for candidates to reach voters.

"If you think about what he’s done, he’s targeted his voters by using the medium they would normally go to and they like and trust," Rita Kirk, a researcher in political campaign communication, said.

Kirk, director of the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility and a professor in the Division of Communication Studies at Southern Methodist University, spoke during Wednesday’s campus event, "Social Media and the 2012 National Election Successes and Failures."

The nonpartisan Malcolm Wallop Fund for Conversations on Democracy, coordinated by the University of Wyoming’s College of Arts and Sciences and American Heritage Center, sponsored the forum, which was attended by about 60 people.

Kirk said Obama’s campaign was particularly successful with its use of Twitter, a social media tool that emerged as a significant factor in this year’s general election.

She described Twitter as the "ideal medium" for Obama, helping the incumbent overcome a favorability rating similar to President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and voter concerns about his ability to lead the country through a struggling economy.

"It was a new medium in 2008," she said. "It was considered the medium in 2012, even though only 15 percent of adults still use it.

"The bottom line is, it’s a conversation and that’s really important."

The president, Kirk said, used Twitter to "carefully target" voters who statistics indicate are heavy Twitter users: African-Americans, Hispanics, young adults and urban and suburban residents.

She said Obama won 93 percent of the African-American vote, 71 percent among Hispanics, 60 percent among young adults and almost 70 percent in residential areas exceeding 500,000 people.

Jimmy Orr, a Cheyenne native, discussed Wednesday the evolution of online use in political campaigns.

Orr is the online editor for the Los Angeles Times, a former White House spokesman for George W. Bush and former Internet strategist for Bush and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"They’re calling this the ‘social media election,’" Orr said. "They always call it something. Every year since 1996, we heard the claim that this is the year of the digital election, this is the year of the Internet."

Signs of the Internet altering politics and campaigns began showing in the mid-1990s, he said, but the most significant changes occurred leading up to the 2008 vote, when social media began to take root.

"I’m telling you, it all began in 2008," he said. "Because look at the four elements that collided."

He cited the Obama campaign, Sarah Palin, Twitter and "Joe the Plumber," the nickname for an Ohio man who asked Obama during a campaign stop about small business tax policy.

"It was a perfect storm," Orr said. "We really saw for the first time the public had a much larger voice. They could communicate with each other in mass scale."

Obama’s campaign outpaced Republican John McCain in social media four years ago, he said.

On Facebook, Obama had 2 million supporters. McCain had 600,000.

On Twitter, Obama had 112,000 followers. McCain had 4,600.

On YouTube, Obama’s videos were seen nearly 100 million times. McCain registered only about 25 million views.

Obama’s team was also innovative, he said. The campaign advertised on video games. It sent a text message to nearly 3 million people announcing vice presidential running mate Joe Biden. It was able to raise $500 million online.

"The Obama team smoked ’em," Orr said.

The president’s campaign leading up to this year’s election, he said, appears to have been a repeat performance in gaining the digital high ground.

Numbers showed an advantage for Obama over GOP challenger Mitt Romney on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

"Can we say technology was the reason that Obama won?" Orr said. "No. They just better used some tools."

Leslie Waggener, an AHC associate archivist and one of Wednesday’s primary organizers, said she considers the forum successful, despite turnout that was lower than anticipated.

"I would say it was even better than I expected (regarding) all of the varying viewpoints," she said. "I really liked that interplay between (the speakers)."

Event organizers will assess the event after Thanksgiving and discuss future efforts in Wyoming to stimulate discussions about democracy.

Those in the audience Wednesday night were encouraged to post to social media sites as the forum progressed.

One speaker called posting to these sites being a part of the "e-democracy."

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