Over at the day job we are all political junkies, and even now are gearing up for our mid-term election exit polling efforts. Naturally, today's Massachusetts special election to fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy's seat is one we are all following closely. So when I read on the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire that there had been a study of the social media strategies of candidates Scott Brown (R) and Martha Coakley (D), naturally I just couldn't stay away :). The study, conducted by the Emerging Media Research Council, certainly produced dramatic evidence that Brown was more active in social media, but whether or not Brown's strategy was more "effective" (as the Washington Wire coverage states) is an open question--the study itself doesn't make that leap, although the WSJ's reporting clearly does. There is a fatal flaw with making that leap, since we have no idea to what extent activity=effectiveness (or what the definition of effective really is), and whether or not Brown was engaging with "the choir" or effectively uncovering new support, either from undecideds or previously unlikely voters.
One problem with the study, however, lies with the assertion right on page one that "Social media outreach has increased Brown’s name recognition among likely voters. Only 51 percent had heard of Brown in a Nov. 12 survey; his name recognition was up to 95 percent in a Jan. 14 survey." The poll from which these data are derived is, sadly, not cited, but I can guarantee you that it didn't prove that social media activity increased Brown's awareness by almost 100%. Brown may be active in social media, and his awareness may have increased dramatically over the past few months, but as we statheads are fond of saying, "True, True and Unrelated." I think there are a few other mitigating circumstances surrounding that race that might have had a little bit more to do with Brown's increased notoriety!
These things bother me because I really do believe that an effective social media strategy can be a difference maker, but if we tweet and blog headlines like the ones associated with this study, we do more harm to the case for social media engagement than good. We who call ourselves bloggers have to remain diligent about such distinctions, because it would be very easy for social media enthusiasts to post links to this study all over Twitter and proclaim that social media was the difference maker for Brown's campaign. This may be true; it may not be true. The study itself can't tell you that. What the study does say is that Brown was dramatically more active with social media than Coakley, but I can assure you that Brown isn't going to blow Coakley out with an equally dramatic margin! So, what is the actual "lift" that social media provided? It would take a vastly more complex study to quantify that lift. I, for one, am more than happy to reserve judgement on social media's impact on this race until such a study is released.