How Obama Used Social Media to Win the 2012 Elections

Course: Communication and Society
Written: April 22, 2014 
Published: January 10, 2017
© All Rights Reserved

Written during Destiny Jackson's junior year of college, "Relating Diffusion and Framing to Politics: How Obama Used Social Media to Win the 2012 Elections" eloquently analyzes the Obama administration's campaign strategies through the lens of two mass communication theories: framing and diffusion. Analyses was derived from public sources, inductive reasoning, and conventional reasoning. 

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to present how the Obama Administration used social media to win the 2012 Presidential Elections. In an effort to relate this phenomenon to both communication and society, I will relate two theories to the context: diffusion and framing. Society should care about the premise of this topic for three reasons. One, President Obama was the very first candidate in American history to use digital platforms to influence the American People on a macro level. Two, the use of social media has drastically changed the political communication process. Three, every citizen should be aware of how social media can be used to ignite progressive change.

In order to provide insight on how diffusion and framing was used during the political communication process, I've analyzed and researched the Obama Administration's public content on their multiple social media accounts and websites, including: Whitehouse.gov and BarackObama.com. From this content, I formed conclusions by dissecting  the Administration's use of language, word choices, themes, tones, techniques, and strategies.

2012 and 2008 Elections Background 

To set the stage, it's important to highlight some key figures. President Barack Obama (D) succeeded Mitt Romney (R) by 126 Electoral votes (Politico, 2012) (See Exhibit A).

“Digital strategists say Obama's campaign has an advantage over the Republican field because of the work his camp conducted in 2008 and the months it will have before Republicans coalesce around a challenger” (Huffington Post, 2011, para. 12).

 

Of course, many other factors can be contributed to why Obama succeeded. Nonetheless, many would agree that the Obama Administration effectively utilized social media not just in the 2012 Presidential Elections, but also in 2008. Therefore, we can see that the Obama Administration used social media as a dominant strategy to influence and succeed in both 2008 and 2012. This provided the Administration with an absolute advantage.

EXHIBIT A: ELECTORAL VOTES HIGHLIGHTS 

Defining Diffusion

The Obama Administration mastered both diffusion and framing in an effort to win the 2012 Elections. Nonetheless, we must first know the definitions of both theories in order to relate and evaluate them to the context of the Administration's strategies. In simple terms, diffusion is the way that information spreads into society. On a closer inspection, diffusion touches on how actions or innovations are integrated into communities and networks. At the same time, diffusion deals with how users adopt the information. The definition of diffusion has also been crafted from a scholarly perspective. According to Everett Rogers:  

“Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of  a social system. It is a special type of communication in that the messages are concerned with new ideas” (Rogers, pg. 5).

 

In other words, Rogers highlights that diffusion ignites communication and innovation. From a political communication standpoint, diffusion can spread relevant messages. It’s important to note that diffusion is not limited to the communication of physical innovations. Diffusion can be used interchangeably within the realm of communication. In politics, ideas and goals can be seen as innovations. And for election purposes, the Obama Administration needed to communicate new ideas, messages, and goals through certain channels among members of society—the American people.

Defining Framing

On the topic of framing, the definition is synonymous to the literal definition of what one would imagine framing to be. Put literally, a frame conceptualizes and outlines a picture. Within communication, framing provides insight to an idea or action in an effort to form a certain perception. In this way, framing molds the audiences' perception. Just like diffusion, scholarly authors have discussed the definition of framing. In an article by D. Scheufele, he quoted another author named Robert Entman, who described framing as:

“To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, casual interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation" (Scheufele, 1999, pg. 107).

 

Although this definition doesn’t explicitly relate framing to political communication, it’s logical that framing can be applied to communication in politics. Obviously, the Obama Administration formed realities or messages. Then, they made these messages more important or salient when communicating them to the American People.

Diffusion and Framing Through Communication Channels



EXHIBIT B: EXAMPLE - OBAMA ADMINISTRATION'S ACTIVE SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS 

"The successful campaign is going to be one that integrates all the various elements of the digital channel – email, text, website, mobile apps, and social networks – together as one digital program” (Huffington Post, 2011, para. 5). Without social media platforms, it would have been impossible for the Obama Administration to frame and diffuse messages. So, the Obama Administration and the White House kept active social media accounts on: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Google+, and YouTube (See Exhibit B). All of these accounts were promoted on WhiteHouse.gov in some form or fashion. In the words of one of the Obama campaign's chief digital strategists, Joe Rospars:

This was diversification at best. This helped to diffuse and spread Obama's messages through multiple communication channels. This also helped to frame recent events and issues through the eyes of the Obama Administration.


EXHIBIT B: @WHITEHOUSE ON TWITTER, 2014 - NOW @OBAMAWHITEHOUSE

In addition to using multiple social media platforms, multiple White House staffers have social media accounts that help to anchor and amplify the Administrations' messages. Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Jill Biden, The White House, along with each Executive Department have social media accounts, mainly twitter (See Exhibit C). The concept of having multiple White House staffers share similar information, solidified the strategy that power is in numbers. Therefore, they diffused and framed messages as a united consensus. They acted as political gatekeepers and opinion leaders to the issues that the American people cared about most. And by being on multiple media outlets, millions of Americans had access to information at their fingertips.

EXHIBIT C: THE ADMINISTRATION'S STAFFER SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS

Method: How Diffusion Benefitted The Obama Campaign

In comparison to Jefferson using newspapers and F.D.R. using radio, a New York Times article highlighted how President Obama used modern means to connect, engage, and spread information:

“But Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work (New York Times, 2008, para. 13).”

 

This quote touches on five benefits of diffusion: low costs, connections, engagement, control, and independent organization. One reason why the Administration was able to lower costs was because most social media accounts are free platforms. It's easy to build connections because millions of people are on the web. If the information is presented well, the web allows followers to engage each other. The Administration could also control how the American people would dispense the information because social media platforms are customizable. And last but not least, the web enables followers to adopt information so they can independently organize into micro and macro groups.

Results: How The Obama Administration Used Diffusion

Diffusion through 10 Distinct Strategies

So, exactly how did the Obama Administration use social media to diffuse information to connect, engage, and influence the American People? After critically evaluating and researching the Administration's social media accounts and other news articles, here's a comprehensive list outlining 10 ways they did it:

  1. Diversification of social media platforms
  2. Used direct language to encourage the American people to share or retweet their posts
  3. Remained active on social media through daily posts
  4. Utilized video blogging: posted weekly YouTube videos
  5. Used colorful infographics to highlight statistics
  6. Highlighted quotes from the President’s speeches and appearances on quote graphics
  7. Used simple and confident language, not bogged down by political fluff and jargon
  8. President Obama's social media accounts reminded followers of his interview and news appearances
  9. Shared blog posts from WhiteHouse.gov on social media accounts
  10. Created The Dashboard (The Action Hub) on www.barackobama.com

Diffusion through the Dashboard

From this list, most of the strategies are straightforward. The one innovative tool that deserves clarification is The Dashboard. This is also referred to as the Action Hub. Here, volunteers from all over the country could organize local community events with the help of resources from the President's website. Some of the resources included: downloadable petitions, fact sheets, pledge cards, and hosts guides (See Exhibit D). An article on Huffington Post describes The Dashboard at best:

“Once in the system, the volunteer can sign up for just about any activity, whether it is going door-to-door or working an event or even answering phones at the local headquarters. The Dashboard also tells the volunteer who else is working the campaign that day. ("Hey, Jill is working the phones with me today! Great!") This means that working on the campaign can [become] a truly collaborative and social endeavor, allowing the volunteer to invest emotion and energy with others” (Huffington Post, 2012, para. 4).

 

The article also highlighted that the Dashboard enabled Obama administrators to track the activity of volunteers just in case they needed any help. Along with the release of the Dashboard, the Obama Administration released a 2-minute YouTube video titled “Dashboard: The Tools You Need to Help Re-Elect President Obama,” that showed real volunteers organizing to make a difference (See Exhibit E). This was one major recurring theme that the Obama Administration mastered—using videos to ignite progressive change.

EXHIBIT D: THE ACTION HUB

EXHIBIT E: THE DASHBOARD - YOUTUBE

EXHIBIT E: THE DASHBOARD - YOUTUBE

EXHIBIT E: THE DASHBOARD - YOUTUBE

Diffusion through 3 Forms of Media

In addition, the Administration presented multiple information in three different ways: through text, video, and graphics. This was the backbone behind effective diffusion because all videos and graphics could be shared via social media with just the click of a button. Collectively, this enabled the Obama Administration to use social media to diffuse messages, connect individuals, and engage the American people. In essence, this formed a sense of social capital.

Method: How Framing Benefited The Obama Campaign

Earlier, I mentioned that framing molds perceptions. From critical evaluation of reading hundreds of social media posts from @WhiteHouse and @BarackObama, I’ve realized that framing played a critical role in how the American people perceived and interpreted messages during the 2012 Presidential Elections. Framing hit two bricks with one stone: communicated to the American people, all while addressing Obama’s opponent.

Results: How The Obama Administration Used Framing

Framing through 7 Issues

How did the Obama Administration frame issues through social media in an effort to influence the American People? Well, the next logical question would be: Which primary issues did the Obama Administration frame? There were seven of them:

  1. Climate Change
  2. Gun Violence Prevention
  3. Healthcare
  4. Immigration
  5. Jobs
  6. The Economy
  7. Women’s Rights

Framing through Navigation Tabs

For starters, the Administration's website (Whitehouse.gov) and Barack Obama's website (BarackObama.com) had these issues readily available on navigation menus (See Exhibit F). This may seem trivial. But to a critical eye, it isn't. It relayed the subliminal and cognitive message from the Administration, that: 'these issues are just as important to me as they are to you.' And that the Administration is willing and able to handle any future challenges these issues may present, all while having solutions.

EXHIBIT F: NAVIGATION TABS - WHITEHOUSE.GOV

EXHIBIT F: NAVIGATION TABS - BARACKOBAMA.COM

Framing through Fear-Mongering

 EXHIBIT G: GRAPHIC FROM BARACK OBAMA TUMBLR - FEAR MONGERING 

Second, the Administration framed messages by using subliminal fear-mongering to debunk Romney’s strategies when necessary. Take for instance when the Administration responded to Romney’s position on abortion and then created a graphic with “We can’t trust Mitt Romney” (Barack Obama Tumblr, 2012) (See Exhibit G). By using confident language, this graphic framed the perception: ‘What citizen would want a President that we can’t trust?’ This was one example of framing at best.

 Framing through Slogans


EXHIBIT H: GRAPHIC FROM BARACK OBAMA TUMBLR - SLOGANS

The Obama Administration also continued to anchor reassuring slogans to the American people: ‘Forward’ and ‘Yes, We Can.’ The ‘Forward’ slogan framed the perception that Obama’s goals for the American people are progressive and elevating (See Exhibit H). The optimistic ‘Yes, We Can’ slogan framed the perception that the Obama Administration was ready and prepared to face challenges even in the midst of roadblocks.  Without question, these framing techniques relate to the art of persuasion. So, the Administration framed messages to the American people in ways that were reassuring, elevating, and optimistic. As a result, framing proved to be highly effective in order for Obama to win in 2012.

Framing through Inclusive Language and Tones

EXHIBIT I: GRAPHIC FROM BARACK OBAMA TUMBLR  - INCLUSIVE PRONOUNS 

And last but not least, I noticed a recurring theme with the Administration using inclusive language. The tone of tweets and graphics shared on social media came from a “we” and “us” standpoint instead of “you” and “I” (See Exhibit I) Even the graphic earlier that debunked Romney’s response on abortion included the word "we" in: "We can’t trust Mitt Romney.” The use of inclusive language framed the perception that Obama is by the side of the American People. And conversely, that the American People are by the side of President Obama. Once again, this strategy reiterated the “Yes, We Can” approach.

Analysis and Conclusions


By analyzing the theories of diffusion and framing in a modern context, this helps us better understand their applicability to the political communication process. Undoubtedly, society should care because other candidates running for office in the future would benefit from incorporating diffusion and framing in their campaigning strategies. As we know, framing and diffusing through social media proved to be pivotal communication strategies to ensure Obama’s re-election as President in 2012. It is my belief that if the Obama Administration did not use social media for the 2012 Presidential Elections, Barack Obama would have lost.

For the reasons above, social media ensured three tangible benefits: visibility, increased donorship, and enabled the use subliminal fear-mongering to debunk Romney’s strategies when necessary. Diffusing messages ensured that million of Americans could connect, engage, and share the Administration’s messages. Framing enabled the Administration to influence the American people subliminally and directly through reassuring slogans, inclusive language, and confident tones.

And in the words of President Barack Obama from one of his victory tweets on the night of November 6, 2012:

We're all in this together. That's how we campaigned, and that's who we are. Thank you. -bo” (Mashable, 2012, para. 2) (See Exhibit J).

 

EXHIBIT J: @BARACKOBAMA VICTORY TWEET 

Appendix

Sources

 

 

      1 comment

      Habib

      This is amazing, thank you very much for this insight!

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