Politics and governing in the United States have always been social. Long before people started connecting with each other online they were meeting in town squares, coffee shops, and around water coolers to discuss important issues of the day.
From Paul Revere’s “midnight ride” to whistle-stop tours made famous by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, our country has always cherished the act of meeting, talking, and organizing.
By expanding the sphere of engagement and fostering a genuine dialogue between politicians and constituents, social media carries on the tradition of inclusive political debate in America. We know—and politicians do too—that Facebook and other social media give people another way to get engaged with their elected representatives.
Interactivity with candidates—a privilege once reserved for high-level donors and political insiders—is now an expectation of voters and a priority for campaigns. In 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama leaned heavily on social media to build a movement behind his candidacy, his move was hailed as groundbreaking. Now, only four years later, nearly every single candidate for public office from president of the United States to city council is harnessing social media’s power.
Today, we’re witnessing candidates like U.S. Senate hopeful Ted Cruz in Texas defeat better-funded opponents in part thanks to their savvy use of Facebook and the Internet to interact with voters, raise money, and push voters to the polls.
Over the past four years, the Facebook Politics & Government Team has focused on continuing the evolution in the electoral sphere and now, almost every aspect of the political environment has become more social.
The Washington D.C. office started in late 2007 with just one person, Adam Conner, who was tasked with the job of introducing Facebook to elected officials and candidates. In 2011, the team scaled up as we prepared for the Republican presidential nomination battle and the general election season.
We’ve found that our team works best with candidates, campaigns, and elected officials through partnerships. Our office does a significant amount of outreach to show them how effectively they’re reaching their intended audience and share some smart tactics (such as posting more photos or images between 9-10p.m.) that might help them engage more people and grow their “likes.” Sometimes this outreach is done in one-on-one meetings or at larger, organized gatherings.
The politicians that do best on Facebook are the ones who are personally invested in their digital strategy and integrate it into all aspects of their campaigns. Examples of this include the Obama campaign and House Republican leaders such as Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy—each of whom visited Facebook headquarters in 2011 to learn more about what we do and how they can apply it to governing. The relationship with House leadership paved the way for our first-ever bipartisan Congressional Hackathon last December.
Partnering with offices, being available to answer their questions, and providing a steady stream of ideas on how they can be using our platform better is how our team has worked to earn the trust of politicians and their staffers. They’ve discovered that Facebook allows them to bypass the mainstream media filter and talk to citizens directly to engage them in the policymaking process.
They’ve also discovered that the best digital strategy is an integrated one that works in tandem with everything else they are doing. The time the largest number of people are engaging on Facebook is during prime time TV viewing hours, and the smartest campaigns run their ads on TV and also on Facebook. That way a constituent might see a commercial on TV and get that message reinforced with a Facebook ad that tells them which of their friends support that candidate.
Expect even greater political engagement as an increasing number of Facebook users turn their online political activity into offline action. A June 2011 Pew study showed that Facebook users two and a half times more likely to attend a political rally, and were 53 percent more likely to vote. Frequent Facebook users were also nearly six times as likely to have attended a political meeting they found through Facebook.
Successive studies have shown that engaging with political activity on Facebook encourages a person to become more involved. Infrastructure will soon catch up to this trend, as it already has in Washington State, where citizens can now register to vote via Facebook. The future of politics will be marked by the ability of Americans to engage with the political process in productive ways through social networks once considered mere entertainment.
The world becomes more open and connected when we share information with each other, and the political process is not exempt from the ever-increasing push for transparency and accountability. People enabled by technology continue to advance the idea of the public commons enshrined in our Constitution and our political institutions. We think that’s a great thing.