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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

July 31, 2012 at 6:45 AM

Negative campaigning on the rise? Social media make it seem so

Digital media channels offer political parties new platforms to raise money, promote events, and educate voters about their candidates. Unfortunately much of that space is used for negative campaigning.

SEATTLE — Something is rotten in the state of Washington. It’s political campaign season again, which we all know means a fair share of negative campaigning. Yet this year, catty comments and juvenile jibes seem to be flooding inboxes, political party websites, Twitter feeds, and Facebook posts more than ever.

Both major parties are guilty.

A scan of Washington State Republican and Democratic party home pages shows that negative campaigning against political opponents outweighs any serious discussion of issues. These home pages make it clear both parties have their eyes on the governor’s race.

Washington Democrat and Republican web sites

Screen captures of Washington State Democratic (left) and Republican party (right) websites on July 21, 2012.

On July 21, 2012, the Washington State Democrats home page “Featured News” section linked to three unfavorable stories about presumed Republican nominee Rob McKenna — the Washington State Attorney General. One of its five featured photos also targeted McKenna.

That same day, the Washington State Republican Party home page featured a video criticizing likely Democratic nominee Jay Inslee for resigning his U.S. Representative seat to run for governor. This video appeared alongside an article titled “Irrelevant Facts by Jay Inslee.”

Is it possible this campaign has become more negative than previous campaigns even though it has barely begun?

Washington GOP Facebook

Screen capture of Washington State Republican Facebook page on July 21, 2012.

Not according to campaign watcher Travis Ridout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University. Ridout is also co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks broadcast advertising aired by (or on behalf of) federal and state election candidates.

“It’s the same old politics, but now there are just more channels for parties to share their message,” Ridout said. “It just feels like there is more of it.”

Both parties create daily content for their Facebook and Twitter pages targeted toward party activists. “They deliver up red meat, but it’s not a message for the masses,” Ridout said. “If the masses are seeing it, they may not be ready for this level of negativity.”

Washington State GOP tweets in mid-July were exclusively negative comments about Democratic candidates, as both parties use their official Facebook pages to criticize opposing candidates as often as they promote their own.

Parody site sponsored by Washington Democrats

Screen capture of parody site from July 21, 2012. The site was paid for by Washington State Democrats.

Washington State Democrats even added a parody website — RobMcKennaForGovernor — to their digital offerings. The About Me section reads: “In order to bolster my electoral prospects, I spend a lot of time covering my tracks so that Washington voters don’t discover that I’m not who I say I am.”

Does this sort of negative campaigning through social media — or any kind of media — sway voter opinion?

University of Georgia professor Ruthann Weaver Lariscy told CNN in January that negative ads “work very well” because they are memorable and complex. Significantly, we often forget the sponsor. “While at one time attacks were reserved largely for campaigns for national office, today they are evident in local and statewide campaigns as well,” Lariscy wrote.

Ridout said negative ads need to tap into voter concerns to be truly effective. He believes these ads also have to factor in how well a candidate is known and liked.

But if content creators aren’t thinking through their strategies carefully, Ridout said there always is risk of backlash.

“With traditional broadcast advertising, the messages are carefully planned,” Ridout said. “But with [all] these new channels, many campaigns still don’t know how to use them effectively, and the creation of content is often left to an intern or a low-level staffer.”

Washington State GOP Tweets

Screen capture of Washington State GOP Twitter page on July 21, 2012.

Twitter has its own minefields, as the McKenna campaign discovered in July. The campaign fired Kathlyn Ehl, a policy assistant, after news organizations picked up two offensive tweets she had sent from her personal Twitter account before she joined the campaign.

Nevertheless, Ridout said the risk of backlash is small because most visitors to a political party’s website or social media page already subscribe to that party’s philosophy and will be more receptive to its messages — positive or negative.

On that point, I hope Professor Ridout is wrong.

Here’s a request: Please provide professional, meaningful information about who wishes to lead our government, whether that information is delivered via radio, television, or online social networks.

There are plenty of voters out there — Republican, Democrat, and otherwise — who want this.

Comments | More in State | Topics: Facebook, Jay Inslee, negative campaign

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