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3Qs: Campaigning in Twitter’s virtual ‘big tent’

Photo by Craig Bailey

Obama, who’s known for his social media savvy, held the first-ever Twitter Town Hall meeting last week, where he answered the public’s questions about taxes, jobs and the economy. Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism, is an expert in news reporting and social networks. Here, he discusses Obama’s choice to engage the public through Twitter, and the use of social media by presidential candidates and journalists.

Why did President Obama run the Town Hall meeting through Twitter, as opposed to television?

President Obama’s communications folks have been forward-looking in their use of digital-media tools since the 2008 campaign, and last week’s Town Hall meeting was another example of that. It was an effective demonstration of social media’s reach, but it was also gimmicky. After all, the president got to pick the questions, and he used them to repeat his oft-stated talking points. I also wish he hadn’t diluted the public-participation aspect of the event by taking questions from House Speaker John Boehner and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

What role will social media play in the 2012 presidential campaign? How will that affect a candidate’s dissemination of his or her message through traditional media, like newspapers and TV ads?

Presidential candidates — and presidents — always try to find ways to make use of traditional media, which still reach the widest number of people, and to communicate directly with the public. I have no doubt that all of the candidates will put considerable effort into social media as the 2012 campaign ramps up. That said, I’m not sure how many will feel comfortable with the decentralized, participatory ethos that make social media so powerful. But a top-down strategy of controlling the message will alienate the very grassroots activists a presidential campaign needs to catch fire.

How much do journalists rely on Twitter and other social networking platforms for tips and sources for their news stories?

There are still plenty of old-fashioned reporters out there who want nothing to do with social media. Increasingly, though, journalists use Twitter and Facebook to provide running reports and commentary on their beats, to ask their friends and followers for leads on sources and to engage in an ongoing conversation with their readers. In my work, I’ve found that social media are a powerful supplement to traditional reporting tools. And I’m impressed with the way some of my former students are now using Twitter in their work as professional journalists.