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What’s next for politics and social media?

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Each election cycle sees social media become a slightly more potent force in U.S. politics — but its effects are still relatively limited, according to panelists at an event organized by Politico and Facebook and held at the George Washington University.

A recent GWU/Politico poll found 89% of respondents said they had never directly interacted with a politician through a social network — compared with 2% who say they did once, 7% who say they do it occasionally and 2% who say they do so frequently. GWU professor Matthew Hindman noted that he expects these numbers to increase by 2012, as more young people who grew up with social technology reach voting age.

But Facebook’s Adam Conner says asking about direct engagement is deceptive. Rather than asking how many people have directly engaged a candidate through a social network, Conner says it would be better to study how many people have gotten information about a candidate through their Facebook newsfeed because one of their friends supports that candidate. “That’s where you get the viral feedback loops,” he said.

Most campaigns are spending less than 5% of their budgets on their online efforts, said EngageDC’s Mindy Finn, who served as Mitt Romney’s online strategy head for his 2008 presidential campaign– though for some ballot initiative campaigns, that number can climb as high as 15%.

Part of the problem is that right now most social-media efforts for campaigns are just “window dressing,” said Hindman. Candidates have Facebook and Twitter accounts just so they can say they have them — not so that they can accomplish any specific goals with them.

That could change, however, as more candidates who are personally comfortable with social tools run for office, noted Finn and Conner. Finn pointed to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who has a personal Twitter account, but also has an official campaign account run by staff. This allows Perry to have an authentic voice on the network. At the same time, his staff members have a channel for pushing out their updates in a transparent way.

How will the intersection of social media and politics change between now and the next cycle? The panelists offered several predictions:

Shifting focus: The goal of a campaign’s online presence has shifted significantly during the past 10 years, the panelists noted. Prior to the 2004 election cycle, candidates were using their online presences to try to push out information in a way that would persuade undecided voters. Howard Dean’s run for the Democratic president nomination in 2004 changed all that and made a campaign’s online efforts all about firing up the base, said Hindman. The panelists posited that perhaps in the future there will be another shift, as campaigns look engage a small, influential subset of their supporters and let that small group act as advocates to win over undecided voters.

Understanding the tools better: Finn lamented that so few candidates treat their tweets and Facebook status updates as separate platforms and understand how to appropriately use each tool. Finn says she hope mobile engagement will be a major player in the next cycle and candidates will finally start using each platform in an appropriate fashion.

Merging video and social: Murphy Putnam Media’s Philip de Vellis argued that video platforms and social media are going to converge, giving campaigns new opportunities to target and engage viewers.

Rethinking candor: Being authentic online as a candidate means taking risks, the panelists noted. And while unscripted authenticity has gone badly for some candidates, de Vellis argued that voter expectations are changing as a result. While candidates still experience the occasional “gotcha” moment, voters are beginning to become more accustomed to these gaffs — and more forgiving, he noted. As social-media mistakes become more commonplace, their cost decreases — which encourages more authenticity, he argued.

Moving beyond the campaign: Sam Arora, a candidate running for the House of Delegates in Maryland, said he used social tools to connect with voters he met while canvassing door to door, so that those initial contacts can turn into more sustained relationships. Conner mused that if Arora won his contest, he’d be able to use those online relationships to gauge how constituents felt about issues and do a better job of representing them.

Full disclosure: I’m a GWU graduate, and Adam Conner and I know each other from college.

Image credit: ABDESIGN, via iStock Photo