3 Questions With Pamela Rutledge On Social Media and the Obama Campaign

3 min read
  • Government

Dr. Pamela Rutledge is the director of the Media Psychology Research Center and also serves on the faculty at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. Her article in the Media Psychology Blog, “How Obama Won the Social Media Battle in the 2012 Presidential Campaign,” examined the psychology behind the President’s effective social media push. We recently spoke with Rutledge about her article and how social media has transformed civic engagement.

What is the future of government/citizen engagement? 

Social media is key. What it has done is that it has completely redefined the political environment. It hasn't changed overnight, but people understand that they have access to their government and keep pushing to get it. They expect transparency. They expect to be able to participate in different ways. There are companies that embrace it really well, and government has to come around, too. They've been dragging their feet. It's a new model, where they're having to give up control.

What lies beyond the foundation that the Obama campaign laid?

What the Obama campaign did was they took advantage of the technology. The interesting thing is they still don’t recognize that what they were able to do was because of open-source software. It was a new environment.  They were able to build such a huge enterprise because they could tap into open-source software and crowdsourced tools. They primarily used an operating system called Ubunto, which is based on Linux.  Something like over 200 apps were written in a number of programming languages such as Python, Ruby, PHP and Java.  The bulk of their systems relied on Amazon Web Service for infrastructure, which eliminated the potential problem for system overload while also containing costs.

There were stories on some of the tech sites about how some Democratic party officials, after the 2012 election, were trying to keep their codebase a secret, “mothball it,” believing it was to their advantage.  A codebase is not the data, but the functionality built on top of it that dictates how the data can be used.   This violates the spirit of the whole open-source movement, where people benefit from the contributions of each other, and runs the danger of alienating the tech wizards who volunteered their time.  Many also argued that the perception of a benefit next time around is flat wrong, because programs written now will be totally outdated in four years.

Your piece "How Obama Won the Social Media Battle in the 2012 Presidential Campaign" went up seven months ago, nearly an eternity on the Internet. Are there elements to the story that have evolved since then that you think illustrate the fast-changing social media landscape? 

One of the things Obama was able to do — which is a real advantage in any market, including politics — was to be the first guy in the pond, a frontrunner in technology. By embracing open source, he was able to  bring in people interested in big data, attracting the best and the brightest — people who are enthusiastic about using technology to redefine politics. You have to be really careful that you aren’t killing the goose who laid the golden egg, the passion to reinvent things, by trying to control them.

The interesting thing is that the Obama campaign was able to make big data very human. They'd run all of the data through their systems and use it to connect people to people. There are people of the populace who vilify Google and Amazon, and ignore the political arena, where the information is parsed and used to contact people in a directed way. There's not much difference between Facebook targeted ads and political ones.

The campaign also made use of data mapping by combining it with the psychological drivers of persuasion and influence. They had algorithms that looked for patterns between opinions and myriad other data on individual voters drawn from voter registration records, consumer data warehouses and past campaigns.  The microtargeted models created, for example, scripted conversations for specific voters that increased the relevance of the messages to the receiver. 

There is no more powerful driver than social connection.  For the potential votes, increased salience of message makes people more receptive — they feel understood and this creates a sense of validation and connection.  Joining a group creates a sense of affiliation.  Word-of-mouth is the most effective means of persuasion.  Obama’s team figured out that ads weren’t the only way to change minds.  Door-to-door and telephone calls created a sense of personal contact that linked the on and offline worlds.

With behavioral profiling, the Obama volunteers were able to approach people in ways that would trigger a sense of connection and match volunteers with potential voters based on similarity, which increases liking, social proof and affiliation (e.g., if you're like me, then I like you, if you're for Obama, then I should be for Obama, and if we're both for Obama, we're part of the same group) and to identify issues that were personally motivating.

They targeted very similarly to big companies, such as Facebook and Google, using algorithms. I don’t think people make that distinction.

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