Will social media change PH elections in 2013?

By Ira Pedrasa, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Oct 24 2012 06:52 PM | Updated as of Oct 25 2012 12:05 PM

MANILA - After the much anticipated third and final debate between United States President and Democrat candidate Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, Twitter hashtags again made an impact on US voters.

The hashtag #horsesandbayonets went viral in favor of Obama, the candidate who pioneered the use of social media in US presidential polls in 2008.

The hashtag arose from Obama's response to Romney’s attack on the supposedly dwindling number of US Navy men under Obama’s four-year presidency. In the debate, Obama reacted by saying, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.”

'Echo chamber effect'

At the “Kapihan sa Embahada” on the 2012 US elections held Wednesday, Deputy Press Attache Cynthia L. Cook said social media has become a big factor in US elections because of the “echo chamber effect.”

According to Wikipedia, echo chamber effect is where “one purveyor of information will make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again…until most people assume that some extreme variation of the story is true.”

So, can a strong social media campaign result to victory in  the US elections? Cook does not think so.

“Most probably not, but not harnessing it can make you lose the elections,” she said.

She said a more definite assessment of the impact of social media can be done immediately after the US elections on November 6, or roughly six months before Philippine elections in May 2013.

What is clear, she said, is that social media is changing the US political climate.

Cook said it would be good for local candidates to harness social media since it can be an important factor in an election campaign.

Media vs Twitter followers

Citing several studies, Cook said social media users in the US are six times more likely to go to a political convention, three times more likely to influence other voters and two times likely to actually vote.

“Likes” and “shares” translate to actual gains for candidates. Cook explained that social media spreads a candidates message, raises campaign money (which is legal in the US), and helps bring in the votes.

“In 2008, Obama launched the first digital campaign. He harnessed the power of the Internet,” Cook said. As a result, Obama was able to get more than 4 million small donors, each raising at least $80 for his campaign.

Asked about the state of US mainstream media now vis-a-vis the US elections, Cook cited a Gallup survey which says 60% of Americans don’t trust the media for fair news about the candidates. They trust more their friends, who are “loyal” followers of either one of the candidates.

This means a “like” by a friend will most likely be liked as well by another friend, and then friends of friends.

Likes and engagement

More than the click of the “like” button, the social media power of a candidate will also depend on how he engages his followers or friends, Cook said.

Obama has, so far, 31 million likes on Facebook compared to Romney’s 10 million likes. On Twitter, Obama has 21 million followers versus Romney’s 1.5 million.

Cook stressed, however, “despite Romney’s small following, he is still very engaged.” Engagement means answering questions from followers.

Of course, there are also the disadvantages to using social media, she said. “It forces much quicker reaction…and gaffes can quickly spread.”

The voting Pinoy

Asked to comment on social media and Philippine polls, United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) secretary general Toby Tiangco said in a text message: “UNA will maintain presence in social media since it has its own demographic following, but traditional media outlets remain the battleground.”

ABS-CBNnews.com tried but failed to contact representatives from the Liberal Party.

Political pundits here also noted that Obama and Romney still spent heavily on television ads. They added Pinoy social media users are usually the young and those living in urban communities.

However, the key groups that can influence Philippine elections are still the D (masses) and E (poorest) who account for at least 80 of voters, not the youth who are active on social media.

One major reason for this is access to the web.

In a study released last September by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, Internet remains inaccessible to seven out of 10 Filipinos. This is contrary to reports that the Philippines is already a social media haven.

There's also the problem of lower voter turnout among the Filipino youth compared to those over 50 years old. This is why the Commission on Elections is also now tapping the social media in pushing the young to go out, register and vote.