White House considers new social media avenues

Experts predict social media power will be more decentralized during 2012 campaign.

White House communications staffers are investigating using social media sites beyond Facebook and Twitter to broaden the Obama administration's public engagement and, perhaps, to communicate in different ways, a White House aide said Tuesday.

That investigation is driven partly by a belief that social media changes so rapidly the government must be willing to experiment with new platforms, and because outside advisers to the administration already are using newer platforms, White House New Media Director Macon Phillips said.

Former America Online Chief Executive Officer Steve Case, who serves on President Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, for example, uses Quora.com, an online question-and-answer site, Phillips said.

Phillips was speaking at a panel discussion on social media and civic participation hosted by the Brookings Institution think tank.

As Twitter grows and develops, White House staff has noted that users tend to favor Tweets from individuals over institutions, Phillips said, even when an individual is Tweeting in his or her role as an agency or corporate official.

The White House still intends to send the majority of its Tweets from its official Twitter account, Phillips said, but is looking closely at the trend as more officials and staff begin Tweeting.

Phillips didn't say whether that observation was related to Obama's decision to begin authoring the occasional personal Tweet as part of his reelection campaign. Phillips explained he isn't working on the campaign and doesn't know how the decision was made.

The Brookings event was focused mainly on the role of social media during election campaigns.

Social media primarily played an organizing role during the 2008 races, with campaign staffs largely in charge of their candidates' social media presence and interaction with supporters, said Mindy Finn, a new media adviser to Republican candidates.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Finn predicted, social media power will become more decentralized with supporters and opponents forcing candidates to address issues they might otherwise avoid.

"I don't think we're going to see the most interesting or impactful ideas coming out of the campaign themselves, but I think they're going to be coming from the grass roots directly," Finn said. "Some issue will be forced to become an issue and to be discussed at the debates and all the candidates will have to answer [questions about it] because some group will push it up through social media."

Something similar happened on an internal level while Phillips was an adviser to Obama's 2008 campaign, Phillips told the audience.

After then-Sen. Obama abandoned his pledge to filibuster legislation that would give retroactive immunity to U.S. telecommunications providers that participated in the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping of Americans, the largest group on his campaign organizing site, MyBarackObama.com, revolted and began castigating him on the site's comment boards.

"Everyone was walking around the building saying, 'Holy cow. What's going on? This isn't what we want to talk about,' " Phillips said. "But it got to a point where we said, 'Let's just tell them where we stand.' "

The campaign ended up putting then-campaign adviser and now deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough in the middle of the Web chats to explain Obama's position and respond to criticism.

While not everyone was convinced by McDonough's arguments, the internal criticism abated, Phillips said, and the campaign staff left with a heightened appreciation for how much of a two-way street modern campaign communications can become.

During the 2012 campaign, the Pew Internet and American Life Project will be examining whether social media is actually effective -- as has often been claimed -- at bringing typically unengaged people into the political debate, the project's director, Lee Rainie, said.

New people have certainly begun participating in politics through social media in recent years, Rainie said, but, many of those new entrants seem to be the same people who would have become involved in politics through more traditional channels in earlier eras.

The surge in youth and minority participation during the 2008 campaign may have been due partly to social media, Rainie said, but data on that is "impossible to disentangle" from other factors, such as excitement about the first black major party nominee and anger over the economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.