Barack Obama and the Facebook Election

The president-elect was far ahead online, Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta write.

By Soumitra Dutta and Matthew FraserNov. 19, 2008
By Soumitra Dutta and Matthew FraserNov. 19, 2008, at 12:20 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

Obama Dominated McCain Online

The presidential election of 2008 will go down in history for an obvious symbolic reason that will inspire future generations. Yet while pundits were focused on Barack Obama's race, another largely overlooked factor in his success was his powerful techno-demographic appeal.

We know that Obama's landmark victory was due, in part, to a groundswell of support among young Americans. Early in his campaign, political pollsters were observing that Obama was "rocking the youth vote." This proved true: Exit polls revealed that Obama had won nearly 70 percent of the vote among Americans under age 25—the highest percentage since U.S. exit polling began in 1976.

Obama enjoyed a groundswell of support among, for lack of a better term, the Facebook generation. He will be the first occupant of the White House to have won a presidential election on the Web.

This election was the first in which all candidates—presidential and congressional—attempted to connect directly with American voters via online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. It has even been called the "Facebook election." It is no coincidence that one of Obama's key strategists was 24-year-old Chris Hughes, a Facebook cofounder. It was Hughes who masterminded the Obama campaign's highly effective Web blitzkrieg—everything from social networking sites to podcasting and mobile messaging.

Facebook was not unaware of its suddenly powerful role in American electoral politics. During the presidential campaign, the site launched its own forum to encourage online debates about issues. Facebook also teamed up with ABC for election coverage and political forums. And CNN teamed up with YouTube to hold presidential debates.

Obama's masterful leveraging of Web 2.0 platforms marks a major E-ruption in electoral politics—in America and elsewhere—as campaigning shifts from old-style political machines toward the horizontal dynamics of online social networks. The Web, a perfect medium for genuine grass-roots political movements, is transforming the power dynamics of politics. There are no barriers to entry on sites like Facebook and YouTube. Power is diffused because everybody can participate. The Web is being leveraged not only for vote-getting but—as the Obama campaign demonstrated—for grass-roots fundraising, too. The Web can be a formidable electoral money-pump.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly half— 46 percent—of Americans used the Web, E-mail, or text messaging for news about the presidential campaign, to contribute to the debate, or to mobilize others. Some 35 percent of Americans said they'd watched online political videos—three times as many as during the 2004 presidential election. And roughly 10 percent said they'd logged on to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to engage in the election.

Obama, who was often seen thumbing messages on his BlackBerry during the campaign, is a new-generation politician who shrewdly understands the electoral power of the Web. Pulling out all the Web 2.0 stops, the Obama campaign used not only Facebook and YouTube but also MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Digg, BlackPlanet, LinkedIn, AsianAve, MiGente, Glee, and others.

Obama was by a long stretch the most effective online politician during the presidential campaign—not only against John McCain but also against his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. For the past two years, Facebook has overwhelmingly been pro-Obama virtual territory. Some have attributed Obama's victory to a "Facebook effect."

Obama is a natural Facebook politician. On his personal Facebook profile—which featured his "Our Moment Is Now" motto—Obama named his favorite musicians as Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan and listed his pastimes as basketball, writing, and "loafing w/kids" (note the hip shorthand aimed at appealing to young voters). The 72-year-old John McCain, by contrast, never managed to connect on Facebook. He gave one of his pastimes as "fishing" and listed Letters F rom Iwo Jima among his favorite movies. McCain even got "punked" by a Facebook prankster who posted a phony policy announcement right on McCain's online profile: "Dear supporters, today I announce that I have reversed my position and come out in full support of gay marriage ... particularly marriage between two passionate females."

Let's look at the statistical results. Obama counted more than 2 million American supporters on Facebook, while McCain had just over 600,000. On the microblogging platform Twitter, Obama could count on more than 112,000 supporters "tweeting" to get him elected. McCain, for his part, had only 4,600 followers on Twitter.

On YouTube, Obama stole the show. His supporters uploaded more than 1,800 videos onto the channel, which counted about 115,000 subscribers. The channel attracted more than 97 million video views during some 18 million channel visits. Compare that with McCain's YouTube presence: Only 330 videos were uploaded to the channel, which attracted just over 28,000 subscribers. The McCain channel attracted barely more than 2 million visits and some 25 million video views. On YouTube, Obama beat McCain 4 to 1.

The YouTube coup de grâce, and Obama's biggest electoral coup, was the blockbuster "Yes We Can" video clip. It was that video's viral circulation, which caused it to be watched by millions of Americans only days after it was first posted, that gave Obama solid electoral credibility in Middle America. Suddenly he was like a pop star on MTV. The video wasn't even made by the Obama campaign team. It was produced, organically, by hip-hop star from the group Black Eyed Peas.

Obama also effectively used podcasts and electoral messaging to mobile devices—indeed, he had already been doing so as a congressman. As one observer put it: "While Obama was making great use of podcasts, John McCain was missing in action." The McCain campaign finally came up with the idea of posting a videogame called Pork Invaders on his Facebook page to underscore the war-hero candidate's determination to take on Washington pork-barreling. The Obama team, meanwhile, was harnessing the power of network effects through an "Obama app" for iPhones. It allowed supporters to virally spread the pro-Obama message to everyone on their contact list.

Obama had already honed his Web 2.0 campaigning skills against Clinton. While political pundits were following the Obama-Clinton head-butting on the hustings, Obama was outmaneuvering his Democratic rival below the radar on Facebook. In early 2007, more than a year before he won his party's nomination, Obama had attracted a massive following on Facebook while Clinton was struggling with the negative fallout of a Facebook movement called "Stop Hillary Clinton." While Obama's Facebook page had attracted more than 250,000 members, Clinton's page counted a paltry 3,200.

The Internet, to be sure, had been deployed in previous political campaigns, but it was used mainly to raise money. But as voters massively shift toward the Internet for social interaction, consumer purchasing, and political participation, office-seekers are rushing to establish an online presence and connect with voters on the ground. During the U.S. elections, more than 500 American politicians had their own Facebook page. Many more will in future elections—not only in the United States but also in Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, and other democracies.

From now on, success in electoral politics depends on having friends in low places.

Matthew Fraser is s enior r esearch fellow and Soumitra Dutta is Roland Berger chaired professor of business and technology at INSEAD. Their book, Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Change Your Life, Work and World, will be published by Wiley in the U.K. this month and in the United States in January.

  • Click here to read more about Barack Obama.
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