The twelve creators of this site enrolled in Professor Adrienne Christiansen’s course "Cyber Politics" at Macalester College in fall 2011. We are an eclectic group of students, coming from different parts of the world and representing a variety of academic disciplines. However, we all have a passion for the material of this course. Our class was fascinated with the Internet’s potential to change the face of politics.
We dove into the world of Internet politics and web campaigning utilizing a team-based learning approach. The first half of the semester focused on the study of the vast expansion of the Internet in the last two decades and the changes it inspired political campaigning. Each of the four teams chose a presidential candidate from the 2012 presidential primary race and followed his use of social media after announcing his bid for the nomination. This website publishes our class findings about how presidential candidates used Twitter during the early months of the campaign and identifies the political/rhetorical functions are met by the nascent use of Twitter.
This rhetorical analysis of Twitter feeds examined tweets used during the 2012 presidential primary season by four major candidates. We first divided our class into four teams and each team chose a candidate whom it believed would remain in the campaign until the end of the semester (or until December 2011 when the course ended). Each team extracted every tweet from each of four candidate's account(s) from the time the candidate officially announced his presidential candidacy until September 30th. We chose September 30th as the cut off date to maintain consistency among the data across the candidates. Moreover, September 30 also fell within one week of a televised Republican debate. We were interested in discovering and analyzing the ways in which candidates utilized Twitter in the days following a debate. After collecting the tweets, the teams used a simple online content analysis tool called Wordle to count word frequency and to suggest recurring patterns of meaning and political functions utilized by the technology. Worlde also helped us to visualize the content of the tweets by generating a multi-dimensional "word cloud" which drew on the most-frequently occurring words. Teams then analyzed the generated word count tables and "word clouds," extracted the most frequent, unique words and categorized them according to recurring political/rhetoric functions. Once those categories were established, teams cataloged each tweet into one of the function categories we had previously established. Following this preliminary analysis of individual candidates, the teams cross-compared each candidate’s use of Twitter to determine the functions which were shared among each campaign. We established four main functions utilized by candidates Twitter accounts: Helping to Establish a Sense of the Candidate’s “Authentic Self,” Advertising, External Linking to Other Sources of Information and Broadcasting the Candidate’s Policy Positions. Overall, we analyzed a total of 2119 tweets (19% Perry, 28% Huntsman, 28% Ron Paul, 25% Obama). Candidates Rick Perry and John Huntsman's supplementary accounts proved to be integral to their campaign. As a result, we gathered data from the two additional accounts associated with the Perry and Huntsman campaigns. In so doing, we gathered more tweets in order to get a better idea of the primary functions the presidential candidates’ campaigns utilized.
Twitter’s exponential rate of success led to a surge of research studies and academic ruminations on Twitter’s utility--or its vapidity. The author and cultural critic, Malcolm Gladwell, discussed Twitter’s potential failings as a tool for encouraging real- world activism, and concluded that Twitter encourages “armchair activism” with limited ability to create necessary social change. As a result of Gladwell’s widely publicized critique and analysis, a group of media researchers compiled an interactive website that provided a visualization of the significant role of Twitter in Egypt and Tunisia’s revolutions.
However we found, when it comes to politics, “armchair activism” might be enough . If politicians were only looking for online donations and clicks of Facebook- style “likes” to publicized media appearances, Twitter may well be the perfect forum. However, our study of presidential candidates’ use of Twitter and studies of other scholars found limited examples of innovation, or even much use of Twitter’s distinctively unique features. Mark Blevis’ study of Twitter use among Canadian Members of Parliament, for example, found that only eight of the 58 members studied garnered a significant “generosity” rating, as calculated by the number of members’ messages that were retweeted compared to the total number of tweets that they sent to their followers. Retweeting was a key way to engage with followers, and the fact that only eight Canadian MPs used this feature indicates that politicians largely ignored the distinguishing and potentially advantageous aspects of Twitter.
We confirmed the analysis provided by Mark Blevis and other scholars through our findings in this study. We found that the candidates mainly used Twitter for four common, quotidian campaign functions: advertising, broadcasting policy positions, linking to other favorable media sources, and creating a persona with which their followers could easily relate. With the possible exception of linking to other media sources (and even that can be done through the campaign website), none of the functions we discovered were in any way unique to Twitter . These were the same functions for which politicians used their websites, their print literature, their speeches, and most other forms of campaign media. It seems, then, that judging by the four presidential candidates that we studied, Twitter was just another campaign medium through which to achieve the same goals typically met by other campaign communication strategies.
The natural question to ask was whether there were other functions that the presidential candidates should have used. Were politicians using Twitter for the same goals because the candidates were too shortsighted to realize the unique possibilities of Twitter? Or did new forms of media produce not new goals or new ways to interact with voters, but simply new mediums through which to achieve the same old goals? We believe that the answer to these questions is a bit of both. In his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama galvanized young voters and revolutionized modern campaigns through his innovative use of social media. The way Obama’s team used social media to organize potential supporters was significant because that campaign demonstrated a way to do the same thing (organize supporters to volunteer their time, for example) in a way that was different, more participatory, more democratic, and more decentralized than previous methods.
We believe that our study demonstrates that Twitter is neither the game- changing, election-altering panacea that some of its most vocal adherents claim. Nor is it the absurdly ridiculous form of “self-authoring” and “navel-gazing” with which its opponents dismiss it. Campaigns and candidates need to find ways in which Twitter differs from, and improves upon, political strategies that have been used in the past. Ultimately, we think that our study shows that most presidential aspirants tend to hew to a close script in their efforts to get elected and tend to think of and use “new media” in “old media” ways. We concluded that although presidential candidates used Twitter to achieve their typical campaign goals in ways different from their website, a direct mail letter, or other traditional communication campaign media – Twitter has as yet not proved itself to provide most presidential candidates with any significant, or measurable advantage.