A large, underreported area of electoral politics is the organization of new media operations within campaigns. There is a tendency in coverage to talk a lot about the strength of “organization” without actually detailing what that means. The story of the Obama campaign in 2008 and, by all accounts now in 2012, is that new and social media was not a separate, stand-alone area of campaign practice. The point was to avoid what many perceived as one of the pitfalls of the Dean campaign: a national Internet operation that was only tenuously connected to what was taking place on the ground in the states. Obama’s effort in 2008, to an extraordinary degree, integrated different areas of campaign practice and used new media in the service of a large-scale ground operation, which campaigns have increasingly invested in to compensate for media fragmentation and oversaturation. The internal operations of campaigns are generally hidden from view, but journalists should always ask the question of whether and how neat new campaign technologies are connected to electoral goals around fundraising, messaging, and votes.
What do all the developments in big data and social media mean for down-ticket races? Here in North Carolina, I’ve already seen local campaigns using social media extensively, perhaps because of its low cost. What role should media (traditional and new) play in covering or critiquing how campaigns use new media?
Local campaigns are vastly different from well-funded presidential efforts. It is true that campaigns at all levels, through the infrastructure of parties, have access to much better data on the electorate than they did two decades ago, but this does not mean that local campaigns can mount large-scale turnout operations. For these campaigns, the emphasis is still on retail politicking and coalition building, working through their organized party groups or allies in civil society.
Outside of that, it continues to be paid and earned television media. Social media can, at best, complement these efforts. Social media is about connecting and maintaining ties with supporters, driving fundraising, and trying to get bodies in field offices.
I am not quite sure that journalists should be in the business of critiquing campaign tactics unless they are unethical. Journalists spend much time handicapping elections, providing what Joan Didion long ago called the undemocratic “Insider Baseball” accounts of politics that serve merely to alienate everyone not in the game. Even more, the uneven professionalization of much of democratic life is what makes many forms of civic expression authentic. The uptake of social media on many campaigns is often the work of young college students or early 20-somethings who believe in a candidate and cause and are willing to try anything to promote it.
The use of new media to document grassroots political efforts can produce volumes of “citizen journalism” that overwhelm individual news consumers and even professional journalists trying to mine the information for stories. How can consumers, critics, and curators of all sorts find their way through the volume to quality? What responsibility do professional journalists have to curate quality work from sources outside their newsrooms?
I think that we have seen some highly successful examples of curation over the past year. Andy Carvin’s work curating tweets for NPR during the Arab Spring is perhaps the paradigmatic case. Journalists with developed expertise finding, deciphering, and vetting information can help the public find what is meaningful and important in a world of information abundance.
But we should also look beyond informed curation. One of the more interesting things I have found in my work on the Obama campaign and now on the efforts around North Carolina’s Amendment One—and that an emerging body of scholarship has also noted— is that much of what we take to be amateur content bubbling up in social media is actually the result of coordinated action by actors with complex motives and organizational affiliations. The excellent reporting of The New York Times around the Trayvon Martin shooting reveals this, as does the recent incident involving Planned Parenthood and the Komen Foundation. It is not entirely professional communications, and yet it is not simply amateur citizen journalism either. It is temporary, coordinated communicative action when the goals of disparate actors align.