Obama hits on new tack for online audience

The President's State of the Union speech drew 31.7 million viewers - the lowest number in 15 years. So, reaching out to the politically apathetic, via "trivial" YouTube interviews, could pay dividends.
The President's State of the Union speech drew 31.7 million viewers - the lowest number in 15 years. So, reaching out to the politically apathetic, via "trivial" YouTube interviews, could pay dividends.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WHILE the Obama administration is known for its willingness to try anything online, the latest centrepiece of its engagement strategy for the State of the Union (SOTU) address still struck many as being too far out of the box.

Eschewing the usual sit-down interview with major news networks to sell the policies announced, President Barack Obama invited three YouTube stars to the White House to ask him questions. And while that doesn't sound particularly crazy for a politician trying to push his message online, all three were completely foreign to the world of politics.

They were Hank Green, one half of the popular vlog brothers, who often makes videos of himself discussing issues with his brother; comedian GloZell Green, best known for her trademark green lipstick, and for soaking in a bathtub of milk and cereal and eating from it; and Bethany Mota, who posts videos on fashion tips and took part in the most recent season of Dancing with the Stars.

Not surprisingly, the decision to go with celebrity netizens over any of Washington's hardened politicos was greeted with disdain by the White House press corps.

"I'm just curious, was 'Charlie bit my finger' of 'David after dentist' not available?" was how one CNN reporter reacted at a press briefing ahead of Mr Obama's SOTU address. He was sarcastically referring to two viral videos, both starring children.

The issue here is not simply a matter of whether or not the three YouTubers deserved the opportunity to sit down with the President, or whether the President is lowering himself by trying too hard to appear cool online.

Rather, it has to do with the question of whether this is what the future of politics online will look like. Why did Mr Obama choose this course of action? What was he hoping to achieve?

It is clear, a decade into the politics and social media experiment, that just having a presence online isn't enough to get your message out. Politicians also need to think about who they are trying to reach and whether those people are even listening.

The 19-year-old Mota alluded to this towards the end of her 15- minute session with Mr Obama.

"I'm going to be honest with you," she told him. "Before I came here to do this interview for YouTube, I never followed politics that much. A lot of my online audience and just the younger generation don't seem as interested in it... Why should the younger generation be interested in politics and why should it matter to them?"

The President may have provided a straight response to the question - essentially stating that politics has an impact on everyone - but what was left unsaid was some new thinking about how to use social media.

At the very start of his presidency, Mr Obama seemed to adopt a sort of scattergun approach to Web 2.0. Over the course of his election campaign, his team started accounts for him on nearly every social media platform available. There were the essentials - Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - but also accounts on LinkedIn, Flickr, Digg, MySpace, Blackplanet, AsianAve, MiGente, Glee and a host of others.

And as with most politicians, there was also a lot of initial effort spent trying to respond to critics online. The first instinct of politicians and even brands trying to engage online tends to be damage control. Either try to engage the critics directly where they are, or try to set up alternative sites to compete with the negative views. The return on investment on these efforts tends to be pretty low.

The Internet is basically a confirmation bias machine, able to reinforce any view one holds by providing an endless supply of people with the same view. Online critics are thus impossible to persuade, and sites carrying supportive messages tend to preach to the choir.

The argument that there are swing voters silently reading both sides of the story before making up their mind is also starting to come across as a myth. In the US, studies have shown that hardly anyone switches allegiance from one election to the next.

In 2010, when the Republicans made great gains in Congress, the number of people who voted for Mr Obama in 2008 but then switched party two years later was negligible. Studies have shown a swing of around 1 per cent. It all came down to whether supporters of each party turned up to vote on polling day.

In short, the messaging on your Facebook page or YouTube channel may not make that much of a difference because people looking at them have already formed their opinions.

With this in mind, it seems that Mr Obama's online strategy has evolved away from focusing on either supporters or critics to instead trying to reach out to the true swing voters - people who currently do not give two hoots about politics.

This is why he chose to go on Zack Galifianakis' mock interview programme "Between Two Ferns" last year and why he granted interviews with non-political YouTube stars last month.

Viewers with a stomach for long televised speeches have been dwindling every year and the Obama administration clearly decided that it needed to try something new to get the message out.

The President's SOTU speech drew 31.7 million viewers spread across 12 networks, the lowest number in 15 years.

Millennials are also notorious for being detached from the world of politics. At the mid-term elections last November, voters aged 60 and over outnumbered those under 30 by more than two to one.

The YouTube interview garnered 2.8 million views, not bad for a 45-minute video. What is not clear is how many of those were made up of followers and fans of the YouTube stars. The trio have a combined following of 13.8 million. Still, it would be a safe bet to say that a decent proportion of the online audience probably do not fall into the "already interested in politics" category.

Ultimately, the Internet is not a wide open space where everything is equal. As it turns out, the cyberspace inhabited by the likes of Bethany Mota, Hank Green and GloZell Green is quite separate from that inhabited by partisan political blogs the likes of Daily Kos, Drudge Report and Breitbart.

Mr Obama is actively trying to cross that divide to find a new audience among the politically apathetic. It is there that politicians find the truly undecided and it is there they may have an opportunity to frame their argument early. And it may be there, in the non-political social media space, that politicians find most value in engagement.

It is too early to say if that is necessarily a positive move - one may not want to look out for political messaging while reading a food blog - but, well, this may just be what the future of online politics looks like.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg