When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, his innovative use of the Internet was widely praised as a key reason for his success. But as the President begins his 2012 re-election campaign, one of his first social media initiatives isn’t going as planned.
The campaign this month launched a website called Attackwatch.com, which it says will attempt to combat “false allegations against the President and his record.” With an ominous black, white, and red color scheme and unflattering photos of Obama’s opponents, the site comments on what it calls “Rick Perry’s massive jobs lie,” Glenn Beck’s “growing collection of false allegations about the President’s record on Israel,” and other claims from people like Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, and Donald Trump.
The idea for Attackwatch isn’t new. It’s similar to a site Obama’s first presidential campaign operated called Fightthesmears.com (which remains online, still reminding supporters to vote Nov. 4, 2008).
But unlike Fightthesmears.com, the new site contains a prominent social media component. It encourages the President’s supporters to follow the @attackwatch Twitter feed and report attacks using the #attackwatch hashtag.
Since the campaign announced the hashtag Sept. 12, it’s appeared in more than 40,000 tweets. But the vast majority came not from Obama supporters reporting false allegations, but from critics mocking the whole concept of the site.
“That might be the creepiest thing this administration has ever done,” tweeted conservative writer Stephen Kruiser. “It’s like Obama’s campaign put a ‘kick me’ sign on its own back,” wrote Internet talk show host Doug Rink. A Twitter user named “BarackObamaLies” used the hashtag more than 140 times.
Even one of the President’s Republican challengers got into the act. “Dutifully reporting myself to your #AttackWatch group,” tweeted GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain. “Your domestic and foreign policies make NO SENSE whatsoever.”
Attackwatch “has become an online bulletin board for jokes at President Obama’s expense,” reported The Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post said the site had “backfired” and is a “laughing stock of conservatives.”
Twitter presents new challenges
The Obama campaign’s experience with Attackwatch shows how much the online environment has changed in the past three years, as the Web has matured and users have come to expect to be part of a conversation. It also demonstrates the challenges candidates face as they try to navigate the evolving social media landscape.
“I don’t think candidates will be able to utilize Facebook and Twitter the same way that they did in 2008,” said Dominic Basulto, a digital strategist and writer who contributes to the Washington Post’s Innovations blog.
Indeed, Twitter was still in its infancy during the last presidential campaign, while Facebook had a relatively small active user base of 100 million people – less than one-sixth of its current size. The only social media components of Obama’s 2008 Fightthesmears site were simple links to the campaign’s Facebook and Myspace pages, and the only way to comment was via email.
Nowadays, Twitter links are standard parts of campaign websites, and candidates often feel pressure to use social media to facilitate conversations. Like President Obama, all of the current Republican White House hopefuls prominently display links with the familiar blue “t” logo on their homepages, and a few have encouraged supporters to use specific hashtags. Gov. Mitt Romney promoted #mitt2012, while Newt Gingrich asked his followers to use #supportnewt.
But as with #attackwatch, not everybody who uses the Republican candidates’ hashtags is complimentary.
“The system has changed,” said University of Minnesota Professor Heather LaMarre, who studies the growth of social media in politics. “The user is demanding to be part of the discussion, and the layperson has the ability to basically hack the conversation and disrupt the flow of information.”
LaMarre said political operatives – even those in the Obama campaign who helped pioneer the use of social media in politics – haven’t fully developed a strategy for using it well.
“They’re almost victims of the changing system,” LaMarre said in a phone interview. “They haven’t figured out how to gatekeep or control messaging. I’m not even sure they can if they wanted to.”
“This election’s not going to be won in hashtags”
The Obama campaign didn’t respond to our request for an interview about the Attackwatch site. Deputy press secretary Katie Hogan gave a boilerplate comment to the Washington Post: “This site is a tool providing our supporters with the facts they need to fight back against lies and distortions about the President’s record.”
Hogan’s response didn’t directly address opponents’ use of the #attackwatch hashtag. But some political observers were quick to dismiss the controversy as a non-issue.
“This election’s not going to be won in hashtags,” said Colin Delany, a consultant who specializes in online political advocacy. He agreed that the President’s campaign staff unintentionally gave the opposition “a rallying point,” but hesitated to criticize them for experimenting with a different form of online engagement.
“I suspect they were going just to try it and see if it worked,” said Delany, a self-described “lefty” who founded the e.politics website.
Delany said despite what might be considered an early misstep, the Obama campaign still has a lot of online advantages as it begins the 2012 race, most notably a 13 million member email list that helped it raise a half-billion dollars online in 2008.
Delany and other experts predict candidates will continue to try new ways to invite their supporters to interact through social media.
LaMarre’s research found that Republicans and conservatives outpaced Democrats in their use of Twitter and other social media platforms in 2010, while University of Iowa University professor David Perlmutter has noticed a trend toward politicians not creating their own social media content, but encouraging supporters to create it on the candidate’s behalf.
“You’re hoping that people deal with negative stories about you en masse themselves, so it doesn’t have to be a campaign response,” Perlmutter said, noting that a de-centralized social media approach can appear more credible than a coordinated effort like attackwatch.com.
“You’re trying to outsource this, “Perlmetter said in a phone interview. “In the world of social media, what you want is 10,000 supporters swarming.”
“And may the better flashmob win.”