Where do Americans Turn for Breaking News?

May 8, 2011

The death of Osama Bin Laden has rightfully captured a majority of our national discourse since the announcement on the evening of May 1.  But what does the announcement demonstrate about our new media paradigm?  In the moment of breaking national news, how is information circulated?  What channels to Americans leverage to find news?

SocialFlow, a social media optimization company, analyzed Twitter on May 1 from 9:46 p.m. EST, when the White House sent a news alert regarding a pending press conference, to 11:30 p.m. EST, when the President took to the podium.

Following the news alert at 9:46 p.m., the Internet lit up with speculation regarding what Obama was going to address.  By 10:24 p.m. EST the mystery was leaked through a lone tweet.  Keith Urbahn, chief of staff to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, sent this tweet to his followers:

Moments later, New York Times reporter Brian Stelter retweeted Urbahn’s tweet to his more than 50,000 followers.  After that, the news spread rapidly through Twitter, the blogosphere, and eventually to national news.

The image above demonstrates how exponentially information can travel through Twitter.  As people read an important tweet, they are likely to spread it by retweeting or creating an original tweet, building a cumulative Web of information.  SocialFlow notes:

Twitter has proven time and time again its value in tracking events as they unfold in realtime, accelerating the flow and spread of information across the globe. Twitter has become the dominant mechanism to get timely updates about events that are taking place regardless of geography, topic or even language.[i]

On May 2 people jumped to the Internet for news, analysis, and developments of the astonishing story.  This chart by Eric Savitz shows website visits for top online news sites on Monday, May 2 versus Monday, April 25:

As Felix Salmon, a financial reporter for Reuters astutely acknowledges, the increase in visitors for TV news organizations such as MSNBC, CNN, and ABC increased at a larger rate than more traditional print-only organizations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.  Yahoo! News was the glaring exception, with nearly twice as many visitors as any other news site.  Salmon determines that despite our increased usage of the Internet, when breaking news hits, Americans still run to their television sets for real-time coverage.

While Americans still leverage their television sets to follow breaking news, its influence is waning.  The amount of Americans with televisions is decreasing and Felix Salmon notes the news on Osama Bin Laden’s death was reported via Twitter before any traditional news organization.  In addition, it is important to realize many people turning on a television and jumping online for news on May 1 or 2, were directed to a particular station or URL via social media – ultimately demonstrating the median’s growing significance in our culture and on our flow of information.


Social Media Invoking Social Change?

February 3, 2011

While it normally does not fit within the context of discussions on this website, I would be remiss to neglect discussing what we can learn about new forms of communication from the events in Egypt this past week.

It is impossible to draw parallels between what is happening in Egypt and past utilization of social media in the United States, or anywhere else in the world.  What one has to admire, and study, is how multiple communications tools have turned uncoordinated social protests into a political movement.  What is extraordinary to witness is that this social revolution – which it can be legitimately called at this point – is truly a movement from the masses, with no help from centralized leadership.

Earlier this week, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams interviewed some of the ten volunteers who are helping coordinate protestor activity in Cairo.  You heard that correctly, there are only ten people actively coordinating the demonstrations of millions.

The events in Egypt are also an illustration of how newer, multimedia channels are dwarfing traditional media.  The Egyptian people are communicating through social media, text, and mobile phones, and the world is watching through those same avenues.  This past week weekend, traditional news sites were leveraging Twitter as a means to collect news and the Egyptian government’s decision to shutdown internet service caused worldwide condemnation.

Certainly Egypt is a once-in-a-generation example, but what we are witnessing is an illustration of how communication is continuing to evolve and effect our lives.  Just as the printing press had an instrumental affect on the reformation and subsequent revolutionary activity in Renaissance Europe, new forms of communication are central to invoking social change in the world.


State of the Union Multimedia

January 29, 2011

The State of the Union address is always an exciting time for political junkies.  The proliferation of technology has continuously changed the address and created ample opportunities for the President’s supporters and opponents to express their opinions.  No longer do Members of Congress have to file into Statutory Hall in the hopes of garnering a 15 second sound byte on the national news, although many still do.  Politicians can now take command of their message and ensure it reaches their core audience.

Instead of delving into the policies presented in the speech, which many pundits already have, we are going to examine the ways in which Members of Congress leveraged the Web to ensure their voices were heard during the important occasion.

Following the Congressional Twitter stream on www.c-span.org, two Representatives stood out as the most active during the speech.  Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA) was the most outspoken critic of the President’s address.  It was revealed on national news the next day that the Congressman watched the address from his office instead of the House floor.  During the speech he presented many critiques such as “Obama’s policies kill free-enterprise.” Ultimately, the Congressman’s efforts were rewarded as national news programs, such as Hardball with Chris Matthews, publicized Broun’s activities, giving the Georgia Representative more publicity than virtually all of his colleagues.

Congressman Keith Ellison (DFL-MN) was the most prolific Democratic Twitter user during the speech.  The third term Congressman expressed elation and consternation at many of the President’s policy positions.  The Congressman now has nearly 10,000 Twitter followers, a very strong number for a Representative.  Organizing for America also tweeted live during the speech, repeating many of the President’s key phrases and policy positions.

After the speech concluded, many Members expressed their initial reactions via social media.  Some Congressman took it a step further, delivering their initial remarks with video.  While Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) was delivering the official Republican response to the State of the Union, leading House GOP members including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) responded to supporter questions received via Twitter on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s YouTube page.  In addition, Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) streamed his response live via UStream.

The White House joined in on the most wired State of the Union address in history.  WhiteHouse.gov streamed the address live and had policy advisors answer questions from Americans following the President’s speech.  In addition, the website had a seating chart identifying who was sitting with the First Lady.

Technology’s affect on the State of the Union is truly remarkable.  The President even joked, as he was walking toward the podium, that the address had already been leaked for hours and there was no purpose for him to read it.  Technology will play an even greater role in the years to come.  More people will watch the speech leveraging a mobile device and Members of Congress will become more creative in expressing their views.

Lastly, as a side note, will a staffer please buy Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN) a DVR or Tivo.  This is 2011, the technology is available to watch two things at once.


Moving from Social Media 1.0 to 2.0

January 25, 2011

We have seemingly reached the point where social media is accepted in all crevices of Capitol Hill.  A vast majority of members from both parties have twitter and/or Facebook pages, and are updating them regularly with posts highlighting legislative achievements and local news appearances.  So now what?

While a majority of politicians have social media pages, they are still not leveraging their full capabilities.  It is not enough to tweet and post on Facebook, the true power in social media is its ability to inspire action.  Matt Lira, new media director for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said in a recent Politico article that social media’s “real potential lies in organizing government itself and how it functions.”[1]

There is no formal definition of social media 1.0 and 2.0, but here is my vision.  Social media 1.0 is what you currently see coming from most Member offices.  It involves basic posting on Facebook and Twitter and floor speech recordings on YouTube.  Its goal is to supplement traditional media coverage and draw attention to a Member’s legislative achievements.

Social media 2.0 is a planned and clearly orchestrated attempt to inspire action among its followers.  Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube posts are coordinated to present a central theme and encourage followers to express their feelings through replies or definitive action.  All social media postings are integrated to ensure a consistent message.  In addition, new forms of technology – such as mobile – are leveraged to enhance exposure.

A recent Roll Call article discussing radio’s influence on Congress included a quote from Rachel Maddow noting that “comparatively speaking, messaging on the left is much more ad hoc, much less disciplined and repetitive, and much less wide-reaching.”[2] The fact is Republican social media has been much more coordinated, with many more GOP members leveraging Web channels, as noted in our past article “Enthusiasm or Emphasis?“.  While social media is not the only reason for greater Republican messaging coordination, it is an important one.

Need a lesson on the power of social media 2.0?  Look to private business or entertainment.  Watch television commercials and see how the advertisements are encouraging you to log online or visit a Facebook page for more information.  Congressional communications in the digital age is about salesmanship as much as it is about substance.  And Members of Congress that harness a coordinated message supplemented by next generation social media tactics will be the ones to prevail.

Political Polarization and Social Media

January 13, 2011

Since the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and bystanders in Tucson, politicians, citizens, and the media have immediately and emphatically brought attention to the proliferation of extreme rhetoric in our country’s political discourse.  People from all sides of the political spectrum decry the increase in polarization that has taken shape over the last twenty years.  I even spoke to a former U.S. Senator recently who told me he would have no interest serving in today’s political environment.

While certainly not the only cause, it is difficult to deny the impact the Internet, Web, and social media has had on the increase of extreme rhetoric in politics.  In a recent post, “The Power of Online Political News”, we quoted Eric Schmidt, CEO, Google who said the Web will allow people to “miscommunicate even louder” and is “as likely to make them more extremist as it is to make them more insightful.” [1] John McWhorter wrote for NPR that “the actual cause of this new national temper is technology and its intersection with how language is used.”  He adds “it is no accident that the shrillness of political conversation has increased just as broadband and YouTube have become staples of American life.”[2] This website has even gone out of its way to extol the ability of online communications to “incite supporter fervor.”

It would be hard to find someone who wishes for a détente between Republicans and Democrats more than myself.  I fondly remember the political climate of the 1980’s, when my father served as a Senate staffer.  While the two political parties disagreed on many issues, there was always an element of respect, with President Ronald Reagan writing in his memories that he and House Speaker Tip O’Neill were friends after 6:00 p.m.

But as we have noted on this website, in today’s saturated media climate, it is typically the extremes that receive the most attention.  Even yesterday, the day when mourners gathered in Tucson to honor victims of the shooting, Sarah Palin received a deluge of media attention for her online video in which she used the phrase ‘blood libel.’  And considering the need for Members of Congress to utilize social media in order to expound their messaging, extreme political discourse is going to persist in our society.

Political polarization is nothing new in America.  Study the Presidential elections of 1800 and 1828 if you want to see political mudslinging at its apex.  But in today’s 24/7, instant news environment, every word is magnified and dissected.  This places an extra onus on politicians to ensure their rhetoric inspires as opposed to vilifies.  There is nothing wrong with political competition, and social media is a wonderful medium for that, but it is essential to maintain civility in the process.

Maintain Supporter Enthusiasm as a Member-elect

November 23, 2010

Congratulations!  You are heading to Washington as a Senator or Representative.  While many are going through the paces of orientation and reconnecting with their families after an arduous campaign, the intervening two months between Election Day and taking office are critical to maintaining supporter enthusiasm and building a strong political base for the legislative trials that lay ahead.

While hiring a chief of staff and deciding whether to uproot the family to the nation’s capital takes priority in the minds of Member-elects, some Washington newcomers are taking the time to share with supporters their transition to Congress and inform constituents of the early legislative battles they plan to wage.

Sean Duffy, the former Real World star and Congressman-elect for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, is shooting a series of short videos on a camera and posting them on Youtube.  The videos include the freshman class photo, Duffy describing his co-sponsorship of a Republican bill to ban earmarks, and touring the Library of Congress.  Duffy is also posting the videos on his campaign social media channels.

Steve Southerland, who defeated Allan Boyd to represent Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, is actively keeping fans engaged on Facebook by posting his freshman class photos, videos with national news outlets, and reposting national stories that mention him – including the House freshman office lottery.

Considering the time, money, and energy it took to build a strong social media following, it is important for new Members to maintain those channels to help disseminate their legislative achievements when the new Congress begins in January.  While they had little difficulty garnering media interest during the campaign, new Representatives and Senators will find it much more difficult to compete for air time when the attention of the American public – and similarly the media – shifts to other matters.  A little investment in social media now will go a long way toward controlling and distributing your messaging later.



Enthusiasm or Emphasis?

October 24, 2010

Recent studies have found Republicans capturing a decided advantage over Democrats in the social media sphere. A September study by OhMyGov finds Republican Members of Congress outdistancing their Democratic counterparts on Facebook by more than 2-to-1. The gap is also widening, with the Republican Facebook following increasing by 35 percent from May 1 to August 31, compared to 22 percent by Democrats. A recent Burston-Marsteller report found similar numbers for Twitter. Republican campaign-focused Twitter accounts average 4,820 followers versus 2,972 for Democrats. Of the top ten most followed Twitter accounts, eight are Republicans.

According to the OhMyGov report, on Election Day in 2008, President Obama’s Facebook page had more than 112,000 fans compared to Senator McCain’s 4,600. The Democrats’ social media dominance seemed as firmly entrenched as their Congressional majorities. But in a span of two years – just as they are on the cusp of flipping the makeup of Congress –­ Republicans have captured the social media market. The question is how? Is it firmly the result of voter enthusiasm? Or have the Republicans placed a greater emphasis on social media and used it to ignite an anti-Democratic fervor?

Accounting for official Congressional social media pages, Republicans Members of Congress have 133 Twitter pages (61%) and 206 Facebook pages (96%), according to www.govsm.com. Democratic Members of Congress total 99 Twitter pages (32%) and 238 Facebook pages (76%). These numbers demonstrate that Republicans place a greater emphasis on digital communications than their Democratic counterparts.

Heading into the 2010 midterm elections, no constituency has shown more enthusiasm than the Tea Party. A recent CNN poll finds that 73 percent of Tea Party supporters are “very enthusiastic” about voting in November. Consequently only 43 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republican say the same. And these numbers are reflective in campaign social media statistics. According to a recent study by headcount.org, four of the top seven Senate campaign social media followings – when combining Facebook and Twitter followers – are Tea Party backed candidates. These politicians include Jim Demint, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Sharron Angle.

While far from being statistically significant, these numbers prove that both enthusiasm and emphasis are necessary to build a social media following. In 2010, the Republican Party has both – its base is much more engaged and party leaders are effectively capitalizing on that fervor through multimedia means – reminiscent of President Obama’s campaign in 2008.