Social Media and Politics: An Interview with George Scoville

(Credit: Overdrive Interactive)[/caption]

IVN’s Bianca Ciotti recently had the opportunity to interview George Scoville on the intersections of public policy, the election, and social media. George Scoville (Twitter) is an independent media strategist, political consultant, and public policy analyst who served as the Cato Institute’s Manager of New Media from 2010 to 2011.

The Cato Institute is a well known libertarian think tank which supports public policy that promotes limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace.

During his time at the Cato Institute, Mr. Scoville was responsible for integrating strategic communications, marketing, and development using new media tactics.

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BIANCA CIOTTI: How does the Cato Institute utilize social media to broadcast public policy information?

GEORGE SCOVILLE: When I was at Cato, we used a number of digital solutions to broadcast our policy research, and some of those were social in nature; others were more static. The website and [email protected] blog are both sort of old-school portals for archiving scholarly work and expert opinion on daily news/current events. Both use social sharing capabilities to help end users spread the information across social networks.

Of course, Cato had its own social presences as well — several Facebook pages (one general page for the Cato Institute, several smaller pages for various Cato projects like the Center for Educational Freedom or Downsizing the Federal Government, and even pages for books written by Cato scholars, where the authors were page administrators and interacted with fans personally — John Samples’s The Struggle to Limit Government comes to mind as such an example), several Twitter accounts (one general account for Cato, several smaller accounts for projects like Downsizing the Federal Government — @DownsizeTheFeds — and then many scholars set up individual Twitter accounts too), and a branded YouTube channel (in addition to hosting video on the Cato.org site).

Some scholars use their Twitter accounts as a way to transmit items on their bio pages at Cato.org (policy studies, op-eds, blog posts, interviews, etc.) to their Twitter followers via RSS; others have really taken to Twitter and use it to engage followers and other scholars in their fields (@WalterOlson, @JasonKuznicki and @NealMcCluskey are some of my favorites in this regard). I believe my successor developed a Google+ presence, too.

DownsizingGovernment.org was one of the more successful microsite projects Cato ever undertook; it was the digital property for the Downsizing the Federal Government project. It too is an archival repository for scholarly work related to the project, and has its own internal blog; both the site and the blog have social sharing features. Cato Unbound, the online magazine/political theory roundtable started by Will Wilkinson and curated today by Jason Kuznicki is also a neat feature; it’s an independent Cato blog that features outside contributions built around monthly themes/topics. I think this particular blog best captures the collaborative spirit of web 2.0 technology out of all the Cato social/digital properties.

I think two of the cooler digital innovations we undertook during my time there were (a) the launch of our iPhone/Android applications (regrettably, this still lacks one-touch sharing capabilities), and (b) using HTML5 on Cato.org. The latter was important for our multimedia library, because with HTML5, an individual video or podcast link from Cato.org shared on Facebook would create a little player right in a user’s News Feed. That’s an important innovation for Cato because it helps them get information to people not necessarily connected to Cato, it gets them the information where they are (Facebook), and it gets it to them without disruption (they don’t have to leave Facebook to play the content.)

BIANCA CIOTTI: What social media platform is the most effective? (Cato Institute prides itself on its social media involvement – podcasts, Twitter, FB, Google+, blogs, YouTube etc.)

GEORGE SCOVILLE: So this is kind of a loaded question — in determining what is “most effective,” we have to understand what the specific goal we’re discussing is. Cato uses social media engagement for all sorts of purposes. Obviously as a think tank, Cato is in the business of producing and sharing information.

There are a number of ways to track how many PDFs of policy studies have been downloaded, how many times a blog post has been visited, where external traffic sources are, or how quickly a Google Ad Words/Facebook advertising campaign budget is used up because people are clicking on ads in their Facebook sidebar, or when they search Google for “school choice.” It just depends on what you consider “effective” to mean. I didn’t spend too much time with the development staff when I was at Cato, but I know that in campaign world, email solicitations are still one of the most effective vehicles for raising money online.

I’m a big believer, too, in Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” philosophy — so I would say that different types of online media vary in effectiveness for persuading people on a policy point, for example. If I had my pick on what’s the most persuasive medium, I would say online video — even if the number of views on a YouTube video isn’t very high. This March 2011 video on Republican spending cut proposals got over 27,000 views, which is great for a think tank, but it also visualized and put into context those spending cut proposals in 72 seconds; so in very short order, we were able to boil down a pretty complex budget discussion into an easily accessible narrative that didn’t waste time in getting to the point and that could be easily shared by other sites/blogs. I think as long as communications are accessible, relevant, and considerate of consumers’ attention spans, they will always be both effective and widely shared.

BIANCA CIOTTI: Are the current presidential candidates using social media to its full potential? What could either candidate improve on?

GEORGE SCOVILLE: This is a great question that I fear I am woefully under-qualified to answer. My current work largely keeps me away from the presidential campaigns, and I’m not familiar enough with what any of them are doing on the back end to know where they could improve. That said, here’s a quick point each on the Obama, Romney, and Johnson campaigns:

  • The Obama campaign has invested a large portion of its war chest into digital operations and “big data” analysis. Given this, their email campaigns shouldn’t be as horrible as they are. Their subject lines are vacuous, their fundraising solicitations aren’t compelling, and the content of their emails suggests that Obama is still some political outsider, though he’s been in the White House for 3.5 years. That amounts to FAIL all around.
  • Mitt Romney should thank his lucky stars that his children understand social media, because I’m not sure his communications staff is very effective. Tagg and the others who have been active on Twitter have helped to humanize the candidate in a way he pretty badly needs someone to do for him. To the communications staff’s credit, their use of social channels to issue rapid response messages to criticisms of the candidate or the campaign has been pretty good.
  • Finally, Gary Johnson (who is my favorite candidate in the race) has kept his campaign both substantive and positive while the others have devolved into mudslinging and personal attacks. I don’t think everything Johnson wants to do (abolish the IRS, for example) is realistic, but what I’ve seen out of his campaign ads is that he has the brightest vision for the country’s future out of all the candidates. That said, his web ads are LONG. As a general rule, and even though you can get away with making web ads a bit longer than TV ads, if you can’t say what you want to say in ~60 seconds, you need to revise your message. The drop-off rate for video consumption after 30, 60, and 90 seconds is drastic, and I think Johnson may be losing people. He’s averaging about 2 minutes per video. I also understand that he probably has a lot of budgetary constraints and a major fundraising disadvantage by being a third party candidate, and that his staff is just eager to get as much bang for their buck as possible.

BIANCA CIOTTI: Many politicians are using social media as a main form of communication to their constituents. Considering that not all people have access to social media platforms on a regular basis, is it possible that politicians are ostracizing a percentage of their constituents?

GEORGE SCOVILLE: Many politicians have adopted social media channels as forms of communication with constituents, but I wouldn’t say it’s their main form. In other words, in no way have I seen any politician adopt social media to the exclusion of other forms of communication. Many still write weekly or monthly op-eds for hometown papers, all use franked mail to communicate policy messages, all are available on the web and by phone, they still maintain district offices for face-to-face interaction, they use TV/radio to reach constituents, host town halls, etc. I guess what I’m getting at is that, in the Internet era, politicians avoid social at their peril, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say they’re focusing exclusively or mainly on social. So I don’t think they’re ostracizing their constituents, no. I haven’t looked at the numbers in awhile, but last time I checked, smartphone penetration was exponentially on the rise among both young people and poor people, and that mobile Internet use was also exponentially on the rise. I think we’re not very far from the time where people broadly, if not everywhere, have some kind of access to the Internet, whether it’s terrestrial hardwire or wireless. In other words, even if a subset of constituents are being ostracized/forgotten, they won’t be for long. Thanks, capitalism!

One could make the argument that politicians are using social channels more than they ever have before, and that’s significant especially when you consider how they use them. Not many politicians, for example, use social channels as a two-way form of communication; they use them solely to broadcast. Social media has become, for many of them, a way to publicly stake out issue positions — that press can report on in real time — without having to call a press conference. Social media are the great unearned media generators for politicians and candidates.

BIANCA CIOTTI: In the past five years we have seen an explosion of new technology in social media– where do you believe that social media is going in the next five years?

GEORGE SCOVILLE: At the end of the day, social media amounts to people talking to each other, communicating. They’re just doing it with gizmos and widgets we didn’t have a century ago. I’m not sure there are too many ways to reinvent that dynamic. As the Internet’s physical networks themselves continue to grow, I think we’ll see greater connectivity around the world, but in the end, I’m not sure what comes next. As I mentioned in the previous answer, there has been an increasingly rapid transition from desktop to mobile (including tablets) — so I would expect to see some application based innovations there, but I’m not really sure what else to expect.