Obama young vote won with Twitter

18 November 2008

Do you Twitter? If you don't because you think you're not a bird, you may never understand Barack Obama's spectacular US presidential victory.

While political scientists and historians move past the campaign to assess the implications of an Obama presidency, they might miss an interesting hypothesis about how he got there: that Barack Obama's victory was perhaps due more to the technology savviness of his campaign rather than just a triumph of political ideas.

Consider this: there was a massive two-to-one swing towards Obama by the usually tech-savvy voters younger than 30, even though the percentage of young voters only increased from 17 per cent in 2004 to 18 per cent in 2008.

In 2004, the youth vote was split near evenly between George W Bush and John Kerry. So what made youth switch to Obama? The conventional wisdom is the global financial meltdown helped Obama. This may be partly true, but for the under 30s? Not many under 30s own homes or large stock portfolios. Paradoxically, they are unlikely to be immediately affected by the downturn.

In fact, their swing towards Obama started from the days of his first primary victory in Iowa in January.

No, Obama attracted youth through social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, which only came into being in 2004 but are now among the internet's most popular websites.Obama's aggressive web outreach created a new online political force.

His campaign used these sites to create and organise a grassroots campaign and raised more than $US150 million from small individual contributions pledged online.

More than 750,000 online contributions resulted in another first in US elections -- a bigger Democrats election treasury than that of the Republicans.The US-based Pew Research Survey concluded at least a third of US voters watched online political ads, mainly on YouTube, and Barack Obama took advantage of Web 2.0 technology to the hilt.

Web 2.0 applications have a distinct advantage -- interactivity. With these applications, content creation is no longer a one-way exercise but, instead, barriers are broken down between information producers and consumers and online communities proliferate through wikis, blogs and social networking websites.

"Web 2.0 is also responsible for "continuous reporting".

For example, a TV talk show simultaneously interviews people and blogs with viewers online. The blogs are tagged with words such as Obama, change and financial meltdown.

A blog harvester will link the blog on Digg, where a swarm of Obama supporters will digg stories favourable to him and bury those that are not.

The most dugg stories will appear on the front page and will link to related stories and op-eds on, say, the New York Times.

Another swarm of Obama supporters will follow the link to the New York Times and Obama-related content will become the most read, spurring continued coverage of favourable stories across all media. Obama is the first political Marco Polo who silked his way through the web 2.0 information bazaars and profited.

Obama was also no twit when it came to twittering and embracing this new buzz technology.

Twitter is an online microblogging site. You Twitter through a mobile phone or webpage and a whole community of followers follows your message online.

Barack Obama has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and even announced his vice-presidential candidate by Twittering.

The real genius of Barack Obama's IT use was its cost-effectiveness.

The British Guardian newspaper reported Obama's total internet marketing spend was less than $US8 million. The largest chunk of that was spent on ads using Google Adwords and less than $US1 million was spent on Facebook. So while McCain has probably never Googled, Obama has revolutionised the used of the internet for future election campaigns.

The Obama campaign is a triumph of modern computing and clearly demonstrates the power of Computational Thinking -- a new way of reasoning that complements mathematical and engineering thinking.

It is recursive and then bottom-up, relies on interactivity and interconnectivity, and often results in a whole bigger than the sum of the parts.

Barack Obama's use of IT has completely changed the face of electioneering.

Associate Professor Sanjay Chawla is Head of theSchool of Information Technologies.

This article first appeared in the Media and Marketing section ofThe Australian.