One of the factors that contributed to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 was his use of technology, especially social media, to reach out to prospective voters. The campaign savvy caught the fancy of the young, and Obama was propelled to the White House as one of the most tech-friendly US presidents in recent times.
As Obama gears up for re-election next year, the focus is back on the youth and social media. At Facebook’s offices in California’s Silicon Valley on Wednesday, Obama appealed to young voters to renew their enthusiasm for the Democratic cause despite the administration’s troubles in making good on its promises made in 2008.
Yet this has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Political use of social media is no longer special to Obama. In both the US and the UK, governments have been using platforms such as Facebook to ask the electorate’s opinions about policy matters. In the Arab world, social media has been celebrated as a revolutionary tool; in China, it is probably equally useful for a state that wants to keep both eyes on its citizens. If the Obama-Zuckerberg meeting signifies Facebook’s growing importance as a political tool to garner votes, that only completes the circle for social media’s myriad uses.
An intersection of this kind has been missing in India (though members of the government do seem to have an interesting relationship with the likes of Twitter). Perhaps this is because of the West’s predilections for technology as a tool for modernity. Nonetheless, there is no way of knowing how consistently effective social media actually are in driving political participation, which is far more diffused than sudden revolutionary fervour, and far less coordinated than state surveillance. And if asking for advice on policy has led to some credible suggestions, there have been many equally ridiculous ones (send Justin Bieber to North Korea, for example).
The relationship between technology and politics is never static, and incremental use of the same technology tends to give only diminishing returns. The problem is “instantly political” is not quite the same thing as “instantly social”. Nor is it as easy. The world of social media has changed since 2008, and the initial euphoria over Obama has undergone several trips to the barber. Banking on the same appeal may not give the president the White House in 2012.
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