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Election Day 2012: What Does a Facebook ‘Like’ Really Mean?

What can the latest analytics reveal about social networking trends in the 2012 election? With more Americans active in social networking than ever before, new social media analytics are uncovering trends among candidates' supporters with unique insight about the candidates themselves.  


Earlier this week AU Professor and one of the Center’s affiliated faculty, Deen Freelon, took a close look at the Facebook ‘likes’ on both candidates' official pages and came across stark differences, not only in sheer top-line numbers but more importantly, in the propensity of supporters to click “like” depending on the type of content posted.  He specifically looked at the time period between RNC’s endorsing Romney in April to the week before the Presidential election.

Freelon noted that while both presidential candidates were posting similar overall content on their Facebook pages, what was most talked about among supporters varied significantly between the two. Across the board, Obama fans were most engaged with posts about him as a father and husband.  These posts were all ‘behind-the-scenes’ photos that could be seen on the average American family’s Facebook wall.  Freelon’s graph (view enlarged here) highlights the five most ‘liked‘ posts, noting that none of them relate to politics or the upcoming election.


Romney’s page, while also having similar posts about family, did not generate the same interests among supporters as Obama’s. Instead, his followers engaged when their support was needed most, and directly asked for. (view enlarged here

Many factors could explain the consistent differences between the candidates' pages.  (Length of time candidate has been active on social networks, potential for supporters to be active online, access to technology of supporters, etc.) Despite these variables, Freelon makes the spot-on conclusion that engagement undeniably reveals “much more about each campaign’s supporters than they do about the candidates.”

With nearly 32 million ‘likes’ ,Obama would be the clear victor if Facebook ‘likes’ were determining the next US President (over Romney’s 12 million).  A ‘like’ doesn’t equal a vote, however, and Obama is certainly not expected to win today by a 3:1 margin.  This large discrepancy in a nearly tied presidential race can appear out of sorts.  Facebook thought so too, and decided that the quantity of ‘likes’ was not reflecting the ‘quality’ of engagement.                                                                                                                
To understand why the top-line numbers were not mirroring off-line support, Facebook initiated a new analytic, the People Talking About This score. This score offers a more accurate analysis on supporters' actual engagement, beyond the initial ‘like’.  Not surprisingly, given the close poll numbers, the candidates are neck in neck according to this measurement.  At the time of publishing this post, Romney actually has a more engaged following (a higher ‘People Talking About This’ score) despite considerablely less ‘likes’ than his competition.

Other studies are being completed by leading research groups such as Pew and Crimson Hexagon. They are using state of the art technology to understand 1) just who the social networker is, and more importantly, 2) the power they wield in political engagement online, reflecting actual votes offline.

Understanding how to better analyze social media surrounding the 2012 election has lead to questions of the significance of online networking. While almost 40% of all American adults weighed in on politics via social media tools, analytic studies reveal that activities such as Facebook comments and Twitter re-tweets reveal much more about them than the actual candidates themselves.  The verdict may still be out on whether social networking is a game-changer in the election booth, but it is clear that Facebook and Twitter have been utilized in unprecedented ways to connect supporters of a certain type across the country throughout the 2012 election campaigns.