When social media platforms utilize algorithms to reinforce what they think you already want to see and give you the power to exclude or block unwanted comments or users, this creates what is commonly known as an “echo chamber.” An echo chamber is a self-segregating social bubble that surrounds you with information and opinions that confirm your own beliefs. The more you engage in and like certain newsfeed items the more curated your informative experience becomes. This becomes increasingly more polarizing as more people get their news from social media feeds as a primary, and in some cases, the only source.
It has been argued that this phenomenon is largely responsible for the current political climate and perhaps the result of the last presidential election. Although this polarization seems contrary to our idea of an open society that values difference and debate, the current realities of the way most people consume information only reinforces the divide. Where does this social media echo chamber leave the moderate or independent-minded voter? How can political parties increase their chances of swaying these people to the directed choice at the ballot box?
As traditional advertisers continue to adjust to the rapidly evolving digital marketplace, political parties and individual campaigns are increasingly adopting digital media platforms to increase voter turnout and persuade the elusive “undecided” voter to their side. When more than 39 percent of Americans identify as independents, the assumption is that if each party can convince a large enough portion of this segment to come over to their camp, close polling elections can be won.
Which marketing strategies are most effective in the current political landscape? Traditional outreach, such as phone calls, door-to-door canvassing, and mailers seem outdated considering today’s digital mass market capabilities, but are these methods still useful? Understanding what political advertising actually does and what types of ads reach the most potential voters is key to campaign resource management and directed marketing where it counts.
Although political campaign data is hard to come by, in a recent study by California political scientists Brookman and Kalla, there is evidence to suggest that most strategies to convince people to vote for a particular candidate are ineffective. It’s not that campaigns are worthless, but the focus on convincing the elusive “swing” voter is largely misguided. This applies to general elections where there are opposing party candidates with clear ideological differences.
Persuasion seems to occur mainly when differences are weak or issues and not individuals are involved, like a public vote to increase property taxes to build a new school. If an issue is seen as partisan, the best way to persuade undecided voters is to avoid characterizing advertisement overtly aligned with a particular party. The best outcome political campaigns seem to produce in a general election is to increase turnout of the political party base of voters. This is of course extremely important, but this knowledge has implications on overall strategies for parties to distribute funds for less competitive primary races and those at the local and state levels that could benefit from targeted voter base support. The power of traditional marketing strategies becomes more important when thought of in this context outside of the presidential cycle, which tends to produce the highest voter turnout.
For general elections, most independents show to be ideologically leaning toward a particular party, they just aren’t willing to commit or admit this. Their voting behavior when measured at the election, bears this out. This leaves a very small percentage of voters that can be considered true swing voters. Undecided voters are seemingly not persuaded by partisan debates, but will vote their underlying affiliation when it comes to election day if they can be motivated to take action.
Research to discover this leaning can be a valuable tool considering political party “get out and vote” campaigns can have an impact on increasing turnout, which is the single most determining factor in elections.
In 2010, political scientist James Fowler, in conjunction with the Facebook data-science team, performed an experiment to see if social media influence could increase voter turnout. More than 60,000 people clicked the “I voted” button when given an informational message about where to vote on election day. But around 280,00 additional people went to the polls when they received the same message that included their friends who clicked the “I voted” button. Given the previously mentioned research on the impact of political outreach, this big data experiment shows that parties need to win the turnout contest, not the hearts and minds of the undecided.
Although the results seem impressive, given the scale and number of users included in the experiment, door-to-door canvassing still outpaces this Facebook study in terms of the percentage of increase of voters at the polls. Here is where traditional strategies such as volunteer outreach and direct mailings along with the power of digital media can make a difference in local and state races. These don’t get the attention and resources of well-funded national races and could make real impacts to the grassroots political landscape. Motivating expressed independent-minded voters to go to the polls can produce winning results with thorough pre-election cycle research to discover untapped hidden political leanings in this significant segment of the population.
Jason Fly contributed to this article.
Also published on Medium.