Studying the political science of social media

Aug 20, 2012

Some graduate students at Syracuse University's Maxwell School will be tracking Twitter accounts and Facebook posts of presidential candidates as part of a new class on social media and politics this fall.  The idea is to see how politicians capitalize on the world of social media.


Before announcing his vice presidential pick, the Mitt Romney campaign created Twitter accounts for all the possible candidates. So when Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney gave Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) the nod, there was already a RyanVP Twitter handle ready to be followed.

Maxwell School professor Ines Mergel calls Ryan's first tweet saying he was honored to join the team "one of the most re-tweeted tweets in the history of a politician."

Mergel says that within an hour or so he had over 40,000 followers.

Mergel studies social media habits of politicians and government, and says this fall's class will track social media use in the 2012 campaign -- for example following apps like the Twitter Political Index that measures Twitter users' sentiments about candidates.  Students will also look for innovative ways candidates use social media.  

So far this campaign year, Mergel says she sees nothing new and different.

"Twitter is really about creating issue networks and discussing topics that you are passionate about and then organizing online to meet offline," she said. "We haven't seen much of that. Maybe that will start in the next two months."

The class is intended to show students how social media can be utilized.

"We try to tell them where to find the users they might be interested in, where to find the issues and networks that are created around issues and how to get real knowledge out of those conversations," Mergel said.

Mergel says social media first entered presidential campaigns in 2004 when Democratic candidate Governor Howard Dean used meetup.com to organize events, and four years ago candidates capitalized further on their social media schemes with use of Facebook and Twitter.  Mergel says ultimately it is one more tool to reach voters.

Syracuse University's School of Information Studies will also run it's own version of the class this fall.