Social media and youth political engagement within democracy.

In recent years, the USA has seen turn in the trend of youth voting during presidential elections. On an overall decline since 1972 (with the exception of 1992) the youth vote rose to 49% in 2004 (almost 9%), and then up to 51% in 2008.


Source: Circle 2013


This increase has been attributed, in part, to politician’s ability to engage with youth through social media. President Barack Obama has been successful in targeting the elusive youth vote. In both his rise to power in 2008, and his 2012 re-election, he exhibited aggressive targeting of youth (and key issues) through social media in an effort to mobilize this demographic.




“If the Kennedy-Nixon campaign season demonstrated the possible impact of broadcast television on presidential politics, the 2008 presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain may have been a similar watershed moment for the possibilities of the Internet and digital technology. From third-party social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to viral videos to e-mail, campaigns and their supporters used the Internet to learn about and promote their candidates.” (Garcia-Castañon, Rank & Barreto 2011)


Continuing the groundwork set in 2004, the“2008 Obama presidential campaign in the United States has widely been reported as taking political communication via social media to new heights” (Macnamara & Kenning 2011, p. 9). Although 2004 began the trend of online activity, Obama’s campaign was more rigorous and effective in its strategy. Social media was “no longer an amusing side story but rather a central feature of the presidential election”, and was used to “register new voters, engage in political discussions, showcase videos of candidate speeches, and most important, raise money” (Garcia-Castañon, Rank & Barreto 2011).


In a survey surrounding the internet and the 2008 election (Rainie & Smith 2008):


  • Young voters leaned towards the Democrats, and to Barack Obama specifically, more than older generations.
  • Democrats also consumed more online video than Republicans (51% to 42%)
  • Democrats also held more of a tendency towards social networking sites, with 36% having profiles (but only 21% of Republicans did)
  • 46% of Americans used the internet, email or phone texting to receive campaign news, share views and mobilize others.


With a substantial amount of Americans using social media – particularly younger citizens – this lean gave Obama an advantage using social media to mobilize youth. While there have been questions over the legitimacy of online political participation an engagement, Rainie & Smith (2008) found a disproportionately positive view of efficacy amongst youth:

Percentage of Internet users who responded to the statement ‘The internet helps me feel more personally connected to my candidate or campaign of choice’:


 ‘He’ll dance, he’ll cook—Will Ferrell will do anything to get you to vote in this election’



In 2012, Obama’s focus on youth (as well as women and minorities) that was present in 2008, took a central role in his social media campaigning. One of the strategies used for youth mobilization was celebrity endorsement.


The Obama campaign’s YouTube account, featured many videos with celebrities declaring their support for Obama’s campaign and relevant issues. Due to the influence of celebrities on youth (a link often exploited in advertising and marketing), it is easy to consider how Obama’s celebrity endorsements could have raised attention from youth. Featuring the likes of Will Ferrell, Natalie Portman, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Lopez, Zach Braff and Jay-Z, the videos addressed such issues as women’s rights, gay rights, and support for ethnic minorities. Obama also pinpointed the importance of youth voting:



Also released shortly before the election was a more ‘vlog’ style video through the Obama YouTube account, featuring the creator of HBO’s ‘Girls’, Lena Dunham, a more controversial video that channeled the new voting youth particularly in women, comparing voting for the first time to losing one’s virginity:



Organising For Action (OFA):


Another substantial component of Obama’s 2012 social media campaigning took a data-driven approach. With the realisation that a significant portion of under-29 ‘swing-state’ voters were without a listed phone number, the Obama introduced a solution by way of a Facebook application. To show support for Obama online, users gave permission to the campaign to access their ‘friends list’, giving the campaign access to the hidden voters.


Roughly 85% of those without a listed phone number could be found in the uploaded friend lists. What’s more, Facebook offered an ideal way to reach them. “People don’t trust campaigns. They don’t even trust media organizations,” says [Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign’s digital director]. “Who do they trust? Their friends.” ” (Scherer 2012)


Using targeted sharing, this application allowed Obama to target youth (and other users) by asking them to share specific content with their friends. “More than 600,000 supporters followed through with more than 5 million contacts, asking their friends to register to vote, give money, vote or look at a video designed to change their mind” (Scherer 2012). Information shared was conveyed not like an advertisement, but as relevant content from friends. This strategy reflected offline campaigning tactics, of the power of a neighbour or friend sending messages of support for a campaign through door-knocking, rather than a robot call.


While there seems to be a mixture of serious and humourous political material and engagement through social networking, Obama’s campaign demonstrates that bother are legitimate methods for engaging online interaction, and suggest that a successful campaign may benefit from striving to find a balance between personal and promotional, and serious and humourous content. As social media and technology continue to develop, it is clear than this will continue to become a necessity in campaigning, especially to continue engaging youth.