In most countries, Facebook has almost completely supplanted other online social networks and is frequently used by a large segment of the population, particularly the educated urban population. Facebook’s strength as a political tool is the personal tone of its messages: if armed with the right information and imagery, a party’s supporters can make the party’s case on its behalf by posting political messages that may persuade friends and family.
In some cases, a Facebook page can replace a political organization’s website, serving as the hub of its online outreach efforts. It is important to remember, however, that in this case, communications will be limited to people who use Facebook. Plus, the party or organization will be limited by Facebook’s own constraints on how content can be displayed and archived.
Political parties face other obstacles when using Facebook as a political tool: for one thing, Facebook does not show all of the content a party posts to its followers. Instead, the social network’s underlying software displays a selection of recent content in users’ “newsfeeds,” based on what it determines to be “relevant” to those users, though parties and other content publishers can pay to “boost” content and have it seen by more people. Another common problem can be getting people to take action outside of Facebook: it is relatively easy to persuade people to “like,” “share” or comment on Facebook posts, but many users resist leaving the site to take other action.
Other social networks such as Twitter, Pinterest and Google Plus may be useful for some political parties, depending on local adoption rates and customs. In many countries, for instance, Twitter is used by a small minority of the population, but those users tend to be journalists, bloggers, activists and other influential people in political society. In that case, parties will likely want to be active on Twitter to reach and persuade its users, because their potential power far outweighs their actual numbers.
Another consideration is that the bulk of traffic to social media sites in many countries comes from mobile phones. A strategy to distribute information via social channels may also turn out to be a mobile strategy. In fact, some political groups organizing among low-income minority communities in the United States have encouraged the use of Twitter as an organizing tool, since it was designed from the start to be used on mobile devices. During the recent protests against racism in Ferguson, Missouri in the United States, organizers used social media to communicate protest plans and announcements. Similarly, although observers may assume that residents of low-income neighborhoods use social media less frequently, an analysis of data in Baltimore, Maryland, also in the U.S., showed similar social media habits across all income levels and neighborhoods.
Social media’s accessibility doesn’t just benefit parties. These digital platforms have also helped empower citizens, who use them to hold elected officials accountable to their campaign promises and to provide feedback on their tenures in government. Our case study on Mexico’s PAN party shows one example of Twitter’s usefulness as a feedback platform. Similarly, the platform Reddit has grown in popularity, and in turn, has seen its stock rise within the political sphere. The Podemos Party in Spain used Reddit as the basis for its Plaza Podemos online debate platform, and some elected officials have even taken to participating in Reddit’s public “Ask Me Anything” forums, including U.S. President Obama in 2012.
Every social media platform is a unique tool connecting parties with different audiences. With this in mind, it is important to tailor every post, tweet or share to maximize the social media channel being used. These resources from Wellstone can help do just that: Tips for Twitter Campaigns and the Organizer’s Guide to the Galaxy: Social Media. Twitter also released the Twitter Government and Elections Handbook, which is aimed to help candidates better use the tool.