Social media turn election night into a conversation

President Obama’s campaign tweeted a photograph of him embracing First Lady Michelle Obama, which became social media’s most shared image ever.
(Gabriel Bouys, AFP/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — Right after the television networks projected that he had won reelection, the first thing President Obama did was thank supporters — not with a statement to the media or in an email, but in a tweet.

“We’re all in this together. That’s how we campaigned, and that’s who we are. Thank you,” Obama messaged his nearly 23 million followers on Twitter.

In fewer than 140 characters, Obama showed just how profoundly the digital revolution had transformed the 2012 presidential election.

Voters didn’t just curl up on the couch to watch television with their spouses and kids, they turned on their laptops, tablets and smartphones to spend election night with their followers and friends around the country. Together they bit their fingernails, pored over the electoral map, fact-checked pundits or just riffed on the latest comments by Karl Rove or Donald Trump.


Just as during the presidential debates when the fate of Big Bird and “binders full of women” prompted an outpouring of comments on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, election night unfolded as much on the Web as it did on TV. Had they not tuned into the real-time conversations blowing up on social media, people say, they would have missed the real show.

“I can’t imagine having only watched TV,” said Amanda Mouttaki of Eau Claire, Wis., a 28-year-old food blogger and mother of two. She said her iPad was her digital companion as she watched election returns on TV with her husband, Youssef, a 29-year-old computer programming student from Morocco who had become a U.S. citizen two years ago and voted for the first time in the presidential election.

After tucking their two young boys into bed, Amanda followed the election on Twitter and Facebook as Youssef toggled between Al Jazeera and Facebook on his laptop, all the while watching NBC on their TV.

“I don’t have the opportunity to go out to viewing parties or celebrations because of having a family, but when I can talk with my friends and followers via Twitter and Facebook, it’s like the party is right there with me,” Amanda Mouttaki said.

The 2008 contest for the White House is often called the first social media election because of the influential role played by newcomers Facebook and Twitter, online services that either hadn’t existed or had barely existed four years earlier.

Now social media is “deeply embedded in the rhythms of people’s lives,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

Nearly 67 million people tuned in to watch network news coverage of the elections, ratings firm Nielsen reported. But social media was also a big draw: 306 million people flocked to Facebook and more than 11 million turned to Twitter, a big jump from a day earlier, according to research firm Experian Hitwise.

And that has begun to disrupt the familiar rhythm of political campaigns and national elections that used to play out on TV, radio and, more recently, the websites of news organizations. On election night, people who turned on a second screen did so to chat and connect with others on social media, and in doing so they had a very different experience than those who did not.

Networks and newspapers mindful of past mistakes took precautions to get their projections right, while social media was a noisy, no-holds-barred election-night gathering where everyone rushed to make early calls and then howl with joy or outrage.

“It’s ironic to think that 12 years ago, television networks were the fast-moving source of news,” said Gordon Stables, director of debate and forensics at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. “Last night, they were the stoic, conservative, hesitant voice.”

And social media gave people the feeling they were engaging directly — not just with each other, but with the candidates. After Obama’s campaign tweeted a photograph of Obama embracing First Lady Michelle Obama, it became social media’s most shared image ever, shattering even Justin Bieber records. The image has been retweeted more than 725,000 times and got more than 3 million likes on Facebook.

“This is really the first time election night became a conversation,” said Joe Green, the 29-year-old co-founder and president of NationBuilder, a Los Angeles company that builds online organizing tools for campaigns. “I was in a room with 50 people watching TV, but I was having a conversation with thousands of people on Facebook.

“Election night has always been a communal experience, but people wanted to stay awake and engaged to be part of the larger conversation of history being made. I shouted more at my phone than the people sitting next to me.”

The volume of chatter among U.S. Facebook users was the highest that the social networking site had measured for any event this year, the Menlo Park, Calif., company said.

Jennifer Grumbling of Palm Harbor, Fla., a 37-year-old mother of two and a marketing assistant, said she couldn’t peel her eyes from Facebook.

“It was like an old-fashioned news ticker of everyone’s status updates. It was fascinating to watch,” Grumbling said. “I definitely got to know a lot more about my friends and their core beliefs. You can be friends with someone for years, but I’ll tell you, hot topics in elections bring out what people really truly believe.”

Twitter experienced a crush of tweets, 31 million in all, making it the most tweeted about event in U.S. political history. The announcement of Obama’s reelection broke the record for tweets per minute: 327,452.

Shauntelle Hamlett of Atlanta, Ga., a 38-year-old branding and promotions strategist, said this election was the first that made her want to stay up until all the returns were in.

“In the past once the networks announced who they thought would be elected, I would go to bed,” Hamlett said. “This was definitely the first time since I have been an adult and voting that I wanted to stay up, and that was really because of Twitter.”