SBS News Online

By Rhiannon Elston

How influential are social media updates? A new study claims to have found the most convincing evidence yet that status updates can affect political beliefs and voting behaviour.

Research conducted during the 2010 US congressional elections examined the link between social messages posted to Facebook and voting behaviour, and found a single message posted to the site was able to influence millions of people.

Individuals were more likely to vote if they had seen a message indicating their friend or friends had already voted, the results showed.

The author also found evidence to suggest that even if you are not friends with someone, but they are friends with your friends, their actions can still be influential – an effect known as ‘contagion’.

The results could have deep implications for the 2012 US Election.

Jonathan Bradley, political blogger at the US studies centre, says the US President has retained the social media lead he gained on the Republican Party in 2008.

“I think you’re certainly seeing Obama and the Democrats winning the social media war.”

At the time of writing, Obama had 28,511,217 Facebook fans and 19,637,225 Twitter followers.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney (whose Twitter profile simply reads “Former Governor of Massachusetts”) had just 6,739,139 fans on Facebook and 1,096,972 followers on Twitter in comparison.

According to Bradley, the Obama team’s online popularity is due in part to the “much more sophisticated way” they are using the available tools.

“The Obama team ‘get’ social media better than the Romney team does. They get the culture of social media and the tone; they’re willing to be light-hearted and jokey.”

He cites Obama’s reaction to Clint Eastwood's somewhat odd invisible chair joke during the Republican convention in Tampa in August as a classic response.

It is true the US President seems to “get” online communication. Obama and his team are prolific status updaters, often posting as many as a dozen times a day, across multiple platforms. He often uses humour. He is reliably reactive to current events. And he also has a Tumblr, where he is fond of posting animated GIFs.

In short, he is entertaining his followers as well as keeping them informed.

And it’s not just Obama who is getting the formula right. When Hillary Clinton became the unlikely centre of an internet sensation – where she was pictured in various situations texting on her mobile – the US Secretary of State responded by posting her own ‘Text from Hillary’.

A notable void in the Democratic online offering comes by way of Vice President Joe Biden, who has just over 150,000 followers on Twitter. His Republican counterpart Paul Ryan has a shade under 250,000.

That, says Jonathan Bradley, is a question of demographic.

“It is interesting that Biden doesn’t have as much of the support, but I’m not very surprised by it.

“He was brought on board in 2008 to be, kind of the older, more established guy. Biden is there to get to people who don’t have smartphones.”

While Mitt Romney is not exactly failing to resonate with voters online, he clearly lacks the spontaneous spark, the knack for interaction his opposition has embraced.

Could the answer for the Republican campaign lie with energetic young VP nominee Paul Ryan to galvanise online users?

“I could see Ryan getting a bigger social media presence and being able to use that,” says Bradley. “If he attracts too much attention, though, he’ll be taking from the top of the ticket.”

This article originally appeared on SBS News Online.