Guest post by Sam Peters.
Note: Sam writes about the US political scene, but her thinking equally applies to our Australian milieu.
The upcoming presidential race will be the first one occurring in a world fully accustomed to social media. Back in 2008, Twitter had barely begun to take flight and Facebook was just being introduced to those over the age of 30. Four years later, these services can connect aspiring office holders to more than just tech-savvy youth; social media is now a portal to connect to the overwhelming majority of American voters. While traditional campaign tactics such as stump speeches and accusatory commercials are sure to make an appears this election season, social media is certain to make up a dominant portion of campaign budgets. This transition begs the question: will America’s infamously out of control campaign spending subside with the advent of digitized forms of reaching the public?
It’s most certainly a practical supposition. Paying for the airtime of a campaign ad costs money, printing bumper stickers isn’t cheap, and covering the costs of intensive interstate travel is a challenge for any aspiring president. Meanwhile, Facebook is free, posting on YouTube is free, and Twitter puts a high percentage of the public in the literal pocket of a politician, and vice versa, with little expense. Why couldn’t you expect the average cost of a congressional, senatorial, or presidential campaign to be lowered as a result of this shift to social media?
This is why: spending isn’t going away – far from it – and so long as intense amounts of monies are injected into political campaigns, these funds will most certainly be spent. Thus, it won’t matter that our politicians’ chosen form of communication is now far cheaper than traditional alternatives. For every free Facebook profile of an up-and-coming candidate, there will be a team of individuals being paid to moderate and update it. Twitter will no longer be the place where public officials can emit off-the-cuff comments about the world around them, but rather a central command post of a particular wing of a campaign communications team, who are charged with crafting politically poignant and pertinent Tweets throughout the day.
Is such intense focus on social media necessary? It’s about as necessary as spending hundreds of millions on television campaign commercials because your opponent is. You see – the bar of success in American politics will continue to be raised not by thrift but by expenditure thanks to such influences such as the Supreme Court ruling regarding Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. So long as this is the case, the money coming in will have to go somewhere, so why not to social media? The base connection via social media is free, but the ability to stay in focus by your Facebook friends through the fog of ever-updating social media will cost money, so long as who you’re running against is putting that much effort into their connection via social networks.
As political campaigns finally get settled into the digital age, don’t expect to see less spending as result. Social media may be free, but the costs of operating and maintaining such a connection to the American people will never be cheap, even if it can in theory. The simple reason is that despite less expensive tools as their disposal, campaigning politicians will have access to unprecedented amounts of cash. In turn, they will achieve something that is far from unprecedented in human history: waste money on the valueless.