Social Networks and Web 2.0 Technology Were Key to Obama's Victory

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Effective use of broad-based, inexpensive social networking tools to generate political and financial support helped put President Obama in office, say the authors of a new book.


Whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, or another persuasion altogether, you're probably still wondering how the heck Barack Obama made it into the White House. The answer, according to the authors of a new book on social networking, is expert use of Web 2.0 technology.


Obama "left no Web 2.0 stone unturned," says Soumitra Dutta, co-author with Matthew Fraser of Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World (Wiley & Sons, New York). The Obama campaign used everything from social networking sites to podcasting to mobile messaging, and the result was "an 'e-ruption' not only in American politics but throughout the world," says Dutta.


Reader's Digest picked up on this fact when it dubbed the 2008 presidential election the "Facebook Election" because of voter mobilization by all the candidates on that particular social networking site. In their book, Dutta and Fraser explore the new connected world that helped make Obama's victory possible. What they see happening is a powerful trend reshaping the lives of nearly everyone: the Web 2.0 social networking revolution.


"The 2008 election campaign marks a rupture with the past not only because the Web was used by candidates to mobilize voters and raise money," says Fraser. More importantly, "The Web became a platform for spontaneous citizen engagement in the political process," he adds.


A video on YouTube called the "Yes We Can" video wasn't even made by the Obama campaign, the authors point out. It was created by hip hop artist, who produced and uploaded it. After it was circulated on the Internet viral fashion, the video eventually was viewed 20 million times.


"Obama wasn't the only candidate to use Web 2.0 tools during the election campaign," says Fraser. "But he was the only candidate to master it and use platforms like Facebook and YouTube to appeal to a new generation of Web-savvy voters.


Statistics from Pew Research Center indicate that 46 percent of Americans used the Web, email, or text messaging to garner news about the presidential campaign, contribute to the debate, or mobilize others, according to the authors. More than a third of Americans surveyed said they had viewed online political videos. This represents a 300 percent increase over the 2004 presidential election. 


Obama, it turns out, had 12 million supporters on Facebook, compared to John McCain's 600,000. He also had 112,000 supporters on Twitter, compared to McCain's 4,600. His YouTube channel attracted 18 million visits, compared to McCain's paltry 2 million visits. Obama made sure his supporters were rewarded for their online participation by getting daily updates from key people in his campaign, including wife Michelle Obama, and letting them know who his vice presidential pick was before the media got the story.


"Obama's supporters were able to make their voices heard through their Facebook profiles, their Tweets, or by signing up to receive his email updates," Fraser says. "His embrace of Web 2.0 social networking opportunities closed the sense of disconnect between him and his followers and gave them a way to be heard," says Fraser. This sense of having a voice "made them more fervent in their support and more likely to go out and spread the word," he says.


The authors identify five reasons why Web 2.0 technology is changing the face of politics:

1.      The technology allows candidates to skip the mainstream media. While both presidential candidates got a good share of coverage--both positive and negative--when they wanted to deliver an important message, they weren't dependent on the media to deliver it for them; they could do it themselves. Obama could reach his 2 million Facebook supporters easily just by updating his online page.

2.      It is cheap and cost-effective. The technology allows political candidates to reach more people with less money than conventional media. Obama spent less than $8 million for online uses, much of it for Google AdWords, according to the authors. Facebook cost the candidate only $467,000 and resulted in a large following. While it's true that Obama spent a huge sum on conventional TV advertising--nearly $236 million--he raised more than $500 million from online donations. Much of that--some $160 million--was from supporters who gave $200 or less each.

3.      It makes grassroots fundraising highly effective. The above figures reflect the power of online fundraising for a popular candidate. The results that Obama started seeing from online donations changed the candidate's mind about accepting public campaign money. "Obama's team speculated that he could bring in $200 to $300 million for the general election," says Fraser. That he was able to raise $500 million made a lot of things possible. "These numbers prove once again that without a grasp of Web 2.0 and the fundraising capabilities it offers, political candidates will not be able to compete in the future," says Fraser.

4.      Candidates can effectively mobilize supporters. The Obama supporters touched by his emails and online messages felt empowered by them and used the sense of involvement to actually go out and campaign for him. They canvassed their neighborhoods, made telephone calls, and convinced their friends, families, and associates that he was the best candidate. "Essentially, the people Obama was reaching through social networking went out and helped him reach the people who he couldn't reach through social networking," says Dutta. "While some of this could have happened without a Web presence, it likely wouldn't have been enough to get him elected." Dutta speculates that without the Web, Obama would never have generated the fervent support that he has among his present supporters.

5.      It facilitates civic engagement and creates social capital. Voter turnout in most democracies today is disappointingly low. It is usually a small minority who make the business of political life their bread and butter. What remains is a sea of passive observers to their political process who choose to get involved only when there is a crisis. Having their voice heard gives citizens a sense of loyalty to the political system and the motivation to engage in civic activities. Says Fraser: "Obama's supporters were able to make their voices heard through their Facebook profiles, their Tweets, or by signing up to receive his email updates." Dutta sees a "massive shift" by voters to the Internet for social interaction, consumer purchasing, and now, political participation. Office seekers, he believes, will as a result rush to establish an online presence where they can better connect with voters browsing the Web. "Given the power of Web 2.0--socially, commercially, and organizationally--there can be no doubt that it will, inevitably, produce an e-ruptive impact on our political institutions," says Dutta. The author's outlook is positive, and he believes that the result will be a better world, providing the values of democracy prevail.


It's evident that the 2008 presidential election brought into focus forevermore the power of social networking for those who know how to use it. Engaging the attention of millions of people online already is commonplace, but the impact is only just beginning to be felt. Delivering a message of significance once you have their attention will put the role of content provider higher in tomorrow's networked world than it has ever been in the past.


Editor's Note: The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution in researching and compiling this story by Matthew Fraser, PhD, Senior Research Fellow at INSEAD  international graduate business school and research institution. Click here for more information on Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World.