Chasing after Big Bird: Risks and benefits of reporting on memes

Memes are all over the 2012 election campaign. Not only do they provide endless fodder for snarky conversations, they’re changing who gets to define a candidate’s message. “Local reporters and national reporters thought [the phrase 'You didn't build that'] was pretty minor, or nothing,” commentator Dave Weigel told Amanda Hess at Poynter. Then it went viral – and became a monthlong talking point.

Now campaigns don’t have to worry about their own gaffes and misspeakings alone, but also about to the hive mind of Internet users everywhere to seize on one phrase and keep passing it along in hundreds of iterations.

Part of the reason these short-lived jokes get so much attention, Hess argues, is that many highly engaged voters and journalists are multitasking while following debates and rallies. That makes it more likely that they’ll notice and grab onto something superficial and funny, however irrelevant that is on the grand scale.

There’s another reason memes spread so far and wide into news coverage, though. It’s really easy to find them. One look at Twitter’s “trending topics” gives you at least two or three highly discussed phrases on any debate night or rally.

Twitter claims that more than half of the messages sent during the third Presidential debate were about the economy. But even millions of messages about the same topic are very difficult to track if they all happen disparately, using different terms and phrases. One catchphrase like “horses and bayonets” however, is highly visible. Both users and reporters will therefore continue to spread the memes.

Twitter would do well to get better at surfacing the more in-depth conversations happening on the service if it doesn’t want to be associated only with an insidery meme culture. Journalists, too, need to wonder whom they’re serving by covering these viral jokes.

Because the question is, do memes swing any votes? Hess is not so sure.

Wahlergebnisse in 140 Zeichen

Election results in 140 characters – You can read more about this at

Wer wissen will, wer kommende Woche die Urwahl der Republikaner in Nevada gewinnt, muss sich nicht auf etablierte Medien verlassen. Es reicht ein Blick auf den Kurznachrichtendienst Twitter. Die Republikanische Partei in dem Bundesstaat im Westen der USA kündigte an, die Ergebnisse der Abstimmung am 4. Februar auf Twitter und in einer von Google bereitgestellten Karte zu veröffentlichen.

Die ausgezählten Stimmen werden in einer Tabelle sowie einer Karte von Google eingetragen und sollen außerdem live unter dem Nutzernamen @nvgop auf Twitter publiziert werden. Diese Kanäle sind öffentlich zugänglich. Wähler könnten so die Auszählung im Sekundentakt mitverfolgen. Berichtende Medien können die Karte außerdem auf der eigenen Webseite einbetten. Ein ähnliches Verfahren war bereits bei der Urwahl in Iowa Anfang Januar zum Einsatz gekommen.

Das Nachsehen hat dabei die Nachrichtenagentur AP, sonst alleiniger Lieferant von Wahlinformationen. In einer Stellungnahme betonte das Unternehmen, man setze auf Genauigkeit und Nachkontrolle der Ergebnisse. In Iowa hatten Journalisten der AP einige Ungereimtheiten bemerkt, man habe so vermieden, ungenaue Zahlen weiterzuleiten. Die Urwahl ist ein Sonderfall, da sie im Gegensatz zu den Vorwahlen von der republikanischen Partei im Bundesstaat und nicht den jeweiligen Wahlleitern beaufsichtigt wird.

Willis: What journalists don’t know about elections


It’s not that political journalism has strayed from its roots, or stopped covering important elements of a modern campaign. It’s that the elements of a modern campaign have changed, and as journalists, we have not kept pace.

… While campaigns have a public presence that is mostly recorded and observed, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes is so much more sophisticated than it has been.

Derek Willis, web developer at the New York Times, in an article expanding on his comments at about election coverage at an online journalism conference. He writes that campaigns are engaged in an information arms race, as a GOP consultant puts it, a hidden scramble for data journalists don’t grasp. “But if we can’t appreciate, much less understand, what modern campaigns are doing to win elections, how can we hope to explain elections?” Willis asks.

Because campaigns know more about individuals and groups, they can target them more precisely with their messages, for example through social media. That means the campaign visible to the mass audience is not necessarily the same campaign that’s being pitched to people around the country, Willis writes. He calls on journalists to expand their data-gathering to paint a more accurate portrayal of the campaign.

Of course, that’s not an easy task. The New York Times is privileged to have some very talented data journalists working in its newsroom, but many news organizations don’t have people who can analyze that kind of data, much less present it in a useful manner. It seems that hands-on trainings are needed, but also some way to size down the problem. The best way to implement new coverage tactics, I find, is by showing small ways to apply new techniques that even newsroom with few resources can adapt.

If you “like” me, will you vote for me?

Social-media savvy campaigns are turning to Facebook to woo voters, reports Bloomberg Businessweek. The advantage, the magazine writes, is that campaigns can use Facebook’s data to target their ads precisely, reaching hundreds or even just dozens of people with tailored messages. Michele Bachmann’s campaign, for example, used Facebook to show ads to people “who had identified themselves as Tea Party supporters or Christian rock fans, or who had posted messages in favor of tax cuts or against abortion,” Businessweek writes.

Once these messages are out, campaigns can immediately measure their effectiveness in terms of whether people click on the ad or not. And on top of that, the Facebook ads are cheap at 50 cent per click (I’m not an expert on ad prices so I’ll go with Businessweek’s judgement on whether that’s a good deal. They say yes).

Two things are notable. First, Facebook is actively working with campaigns to get them to use their platforms, both through “fan pages” and an official presence as well as by placing ads on Facebook. The social network has an office in Washington where its staffers encourage politicians to use its platform. It illustrates how much Facebook knows about its users, selling that information to others, be it a business or a political campaign.

The story also reminded me of a conversation at an online journalism conference in September. “Political campaigns laugh at journalists because we no longer understand how elections are won or lost,” Derek Willis of the New York Times said during a session on election coverage. He pointed out that campaigns use statistics to precisely target specific groups, adjusting their message ever so slightly for maximum impact.

The Obama campaign is especially savvy at that. For example, a campaign app on Facebook allows them to collect information about potential voters. “Users of the Obama 2012 – Are You In? app are not only giving the campaign personal data like their name, gender, birthday, current city, religion and political views, they are sharing their list of friends and information those friends share, like their birthday, current city, religion and political views,” tech expert Micah Sifry writes on CNN. Sifry argues that the Obama campaign’s aggressive use of data gives them an edge in the upcoming election.

For journalists, these campaign actions are difficult to cover. TV or radio messages, websites, Tweets and flyers are easy to see. But targeted messages don’t appear unless you’re part of the target group, and a campaign isn’t likely to show a journalists their cards.

For campaigns, social media ads are also new territory, and it remains to be seen how effective those messages are. Will the ads get people to volunteer, donate, and most of all, vote?

“What’s the point of having a fan or a follower if they don’t do anything?” campaign consultant Rebecca Donatelli tells Businessweek. She calls Facebook “a persuasion tool,” which I find a little scary, but also telling. While users think they’re there just to comment on their friends’ funny pictures, political campaigns and businesses see a myriad of ways to get their message across.

One fascinating idea outlined in the article, for example, is a software for the popular FarmVille game. Players “will be able to go door to door to other players’ imaginary farms, campaigning for real-life candidates and placing yard signs on their lawns.”

One thing is certain: If you thought Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign made groundbreaking use of social media, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This election season, the other candidates are just as ferociously pushing into social media to gather votes, making this battlefield even more important on the road to the 2012 election.