Social Media and Politics

Two years ago Barack Obama led the political field in his use of social media tools. Still perceived as the leader, others quickly are catching up.Social media was a critical component in Barack Obama's successful presidential bid in 2008. Now Republicans, independents and other political movements have caught up, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

One reason is that in the last two years social media has become much more mainstream, even among older adults.

Another is the confluence of the medium and the message. "The Internet is a medium for challengers," says Republican digital media consultant Patrick Ruffini. "It's a medium to disrupt the existing power structure."

To illustrate, Ruffini says the messages sent by people in power, such as President Obama, can put off or anger core supporters. When you have power, you have an agenda and you make compromises – neither of which is the stuff that creates a buzz in the blogosphere.

For its part, Obama's White House says it is using social media now to discuss issues, not rally its electoral base. Some critics and supporters believe Obama gave up a huge advantage by letting his social media army atrophy.

All that will change before long as we approach the 2012 presidential election. Now all sides of the political conversation will be engaged in social media.

Republicans, who rode into at least a share of power in Congress in the 2010 election, may face the same limitations as Obama in having some responsibility to run the government. But campaigns in 2012 will undoubtedly innovate in social media, putting more emphasis on still-developing tools such as location-based applications and devices such as iPads.

While he may not be miles ahead of the competition any more, President Obama is still a pretty good social media role model. He did live question-and-answer sessions Tuesday night after his State of the Union address, exchanged ideas on Twitter the following day and went live on YouTube Thursday. Others may have the same outlets, but few can match Obama's skill in exploiting these real-time communications channels where content and style remain king.