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Published: Wednesday, 9/19/2012 - Updated: 3 years ago

The politics of Twitter


Whoever wins this election, 2012 will go down as the year social media became a permanent, central part of American politics. Digital teams for President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney use social networking services and micro-blogging to get their message out, often in 140 characters or less.

Millions of Americans viewed the Democratic and Republican national conventions through the lens of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Twitter journalists, a fringe group during the 2008 campaign, now get the same treatment from campaigns as star reporters from traditional media outlets.

For tens of millions of Americans, mostly under 40, social media offer more than a platform to express themselves. They have become, for better or worse, a space where these people live.

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The Democratic National Convention drove nearly 10 million tweets, and the Republican convention delivered roughly 4 million tweets. At the same time, fewer Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 watched the conventions on TV than the cable reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Social network sites are effective political tools because they reach people through their friends. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported this month that more than a third of social network users say the sites are important for keeping up with political news. One out of six says information exchanged on the sites has changed his or her mind about a political issue.

Another study reported that an election-day message sent to more than 60 million Facebook users increased turnout in the November, 2010, congressional elections by nearly 350,000 votes.

Relying on social media to become an informed or engaged voter carries risks, besides the obvious one of simplifying issues through shorthand. Social media users tend to seek reinforcement of their own views, limiting messages to those from like-minded sources.

A blizzard of information and viewpoints makes it harder to distinguish fact from fiction, or credible information from rumor and distortion, especially when attention spans are short. On the small screen of a mobile device, one piece of data can look pretty much like another, and candidates know that.

As politics become more shaped by social media and the Internet, the general level of lies and distortions in campaigns has risen. Brooks Jackson, the director of FactCheck.org, argues that both presidential campaigns this year have repeated false statements that they know will attract votes.

"The increasingly disaggregated media ecosystem, the diminished trust in traditional news organizations, and the rise of social media," Mr. Jackson says, have made it easier to "inject questionable assertions directly into the media bloodstream."

At any rate, social media are here to stay. Local officials such as Toledo Mayor Mike Bell are getting into the act: The Bell administration has hired a full-time tweeter, Facebook user, and Web expert to help tell the city's story, unfiltered by pesky traditional journalists.

Given the ubiquitous presence of social media, it's good that city governments and local politicians, usually the last to know, are finally using online social networks and micro-blogs to inform and educate their constituents, as well as communicate with them directly.

But Mayor Bell -- or Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney -- should not use social media as another excuse to sidestep old-school media outlets that many people still rely on to ask questions that politicians would rather not answer.

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