Facebook Is an Increasingly Important Part of Elections Around the World

The words “social media” seem to have been on the lips of everyone discussing Democrat Martha Coakley’s loss to Republican Scott Brown for the senate seat in traditionally left-leaning Massachusetts. Although social media alone doesn’t win elections, platforms like Facebook have increasingly become an integral part of getting out the word about candidates around the world, and while Facebook fans may not translate directly to votes, there does seem to be at least some correlation.

Brown got twice the number of searches as Coakley in Massachusetts and nearly three times more across the country, AdAge reported last week. From the article:

“On Twitter, @scottbrownMA has 10,765 followers vs. @MarthaCoakley with 3,657; on Facebook, it’s 83,535 friends [fans] to 15,573; and on YouTube, Mr. Brown has a souped-up channel with 675,208 views, while videos posted by the Coakley campaign have been viewed 76,805 times.”

Obviously, Brown’s 83,000 fans weren’t what won the election (among other reasons, not every person who became a fan is a Massachusetts voter). Still, every vote counts. Facebook — and Pages, in particular — allow politicians to communicate with supporters, and drum up enough enthusiasm that their friends decide to join in, too.

Also notable: Brown’s Page has now grown to 173,000 fans, more than half of whom have joined in the past week.

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign gained millions of fans during his run in 2008, and is credited with helping him win the election. Brown is one of the many politicians around the world who has since used the service to find more voters.

Philippines presidential contenders Benigno “Noynoy” S. Aquino III, a senator and Liberal party candidate and his rival Nacionalista Party Senator Manny Villar were ranked 11 and 12, respectively, on our weekly fastest-growing Facebook Pages list. Each Page had hundreds of thousands of fans, who supported and criticized each other in English and Tagalog on the candidates’ walls, a seemingly egalitarian and safe forum.

Elsewhere, Mexican politicians in the state of Aguascalientes took advantage of the social network to launch their campaigns prior to the official start of the electoral season and in Portugal journalists are keeping an active count of the politicians with the most Facebook fans.

Barack Obama’s election marked a turning point in electoral politics as the previously unseen use of social media such as Facebook was utilized not only to raise funds, but to organize and implement a campaign strategy that translated into a movement in the offline world, and most importantly, votes.

About 15% of Americans 18 and older participated in the 2008 presidential election via social networking tools like Facebook; they may not have walked blocks to campaign for their ideas, but they definitely marked their territory in the online world, according to Aaron Smith, a research specialist with the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. These users become the unofficial arm of campaigns, he tells us. Often mobilizing without any specific marching orders, they get the word out by posting stories and engaging in discussions on Facebook — and for a lot less money than it would take to get the same effect in the “real” world.

One of the reasons social media like Facebook are now so popular across the world is the fact that, with the advent of mobile connectivity, it’s no longer necessary to be wired in order to participate online. Most Americans who became fans of Obama or Brown probably did so via a desktop computer; in places like the Philippines, though, more almost certainly fanned their candidates through mobile devices.

Using communities in the U.S. with traditionally low levels of broadband access as an example, Smith says, one can extrapolate what mobile and wireless mean to the digital divide. Access to the Internet via mobile/wireless has begun to erode traditionally stark differences between communities with broadband (traditionally urban) and dial-up (rural) connections. Previously dial-up users were relegated to using email and doing searches, now they are able to take advantage of Facebook and other social networks.

“We’re seeing wireless and mobile connectivity bridging some of those gaps between populations. Mobile access is making up a lot of difference that we see in broadband usage,” Smith tells us.

While Smith only had data for the U.S., he pointed to Iran’s Green Revolution as an example of this phenomenon in action. Because Facebook and other social networks don’t require much technological infrastructure, such as a desktop computer, they are being adopted by people around the world to serve a variety of purposes.

“I think that, for a lot of the developing world, wireless mobility is a way to leapfrog out of this broadband structure. You can just put up a cell phone tower and let people go online that way,” he adds.

One of Facebook’s main pushes in 2009 was in mobile — it launched Facebook Connect for the iPhone and for other mobile devices, and it worked with dozens of carriers around the world to launch mobile access to the service. In September, the company said more than 65 million users were currently accessing it through mobile devices.

In conclusion, the role of Facebook and other social media is still being defined in popular culture and politics, but a few things are clear. One, a cause-effect relationship between social media and votes is not completely clear, but there is a correlation as evidenced by the Obama and Brown campaigns. Two, this is further evidenced by the adoption of Facebook and other social media in campaign strategies around the world, particularly third world countries where accessing Facebook with mobile phones erases technological barriers associated with accessing the Internet with traditional means like a computer.

As Facebook continues to expand — and especially as it expands on mobile devices — it will also become more central to the political process.

[Iran photo via orgtheory.wordpress.com]