Passing it on, youth quicker
to share online political news
Social networks fueling dispersal
of campaign messages, coverage
By BRIAN STELTER
with MARJORIE CONNELLY
with MARJORIE CONNELLY
Thursday, 27 March 2008
Senator Barack Obama’s videotaped response to ’s final State of the Union address – almost five minutes of Mr. Obama talking directly to the camera – elicited little attention from newspaper and television reporters in January.
But on the medium it was made for, the Internet, the video caught fire. Quickly after it was posted on , it appeared on the video-sharing site’s most popular list and ’s most blogged list. It has been viewed more than 1.3 million times, been linked by more than 500 blogs and distributed widely on social networking sites like .
It is not news that young politically minded viewers are turning to alternative sources like , and late-night comedy shows like “ .” But that is only the beginning of how they process information.
According to interviews and recent surveys, younger voters tend to be not just consumers of news and current events but conduits as well – sending out e-mailed links and videos to friends and their social networks. And in turn, they rely on friends and online connections for news to come to them. In essence, they are replacing the professional filter – reading , clicking on CNN.com – with a social one.
“There are lots of times where I’ll read an interesting story online and send the U.R.L. to 10 friends,” said Lauren Wolfe, 25, the president of College Democrats of America. “I’d rather read an e-mail from a friend with an attached story than search through a newspaper to find the story.”
Word of mouth 2.0
In one sense, this social filter is simply a technological version of the oldest tool in politics: word of mouth. Jane Buckingham, the founder of the Intelligence Group, a market research company, said the “social media generation” was comfortable being in constant communication with others, so recommendations from friends or text messages from a campaign – information that is shared, but not sought – were perceived as natural.
Ms. Buckingham recalled conducting a focus group where one of her subjects, a college student, said, “If the news is that important, it will find me.”
A December survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press looked broadly at how media were being consumed this campaign. In the most striking finding, half of respondents over the age of 50 and 39 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds reported watching local television news regularly for campaign news, while only 25 percent of people under 30 said they did.
A shared experience
Fully two-thirds of Web users under 30 say they use social networking sites, while fewer than 20 percent of older users do. and create a sense of connection to the candidates. Between the two sites, Mr. Obama has about one million “friends,” , his rival for the Democratic nomination, has roughly 330,000, and , the presumed Republican nominee, has more than 140,000. Four out of 10 young people have watched candidate speeches, interviews, commercials or debates online, according to Pew, substantially more than people 30 and older.
Young people also identify online discussions with friends and videos as important sources of election information. The habits suggest that younger readers find themselves going straight to the source, bypassing the context and analysis that seasoned journalists provide.
In the days after Mr. Obama’s speech on race last week, for example, links to the transcript and the video were the most popular items posted on . On ’s Web site, the transcript of the speech ranked consistently higher on the most e-mailed list than the articles written about the speech.
Rise in youth participation
The way consumers filter their news is being highlighted now that a generation of Americans is coming of age in the midst of a campaign that has generated intense interest and voter involvement. Exit polls in 22 states estimate that more than three million voters under the age of 30 participated in Democratic primaries this year, up from about one million four years ago.
In three of the most populous states – , and – the share of voters under 30 who turned out for Democratic primaries increased to 16 percent, up from less than 10 percent in 2004, according to exit polls by Edison/Mitofsky. In the Republican primaries, the increases in most states have been less striking but still visible.
“Young people are particularly galvanized in this campaign, and they have a new set of tools that make it look different from the enthusiasm that greeted other politicians 30 years ago,” said Lee Rainie, director for the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “They read a news story and then blog about it, or they see a YouTube video and then link to it, or they go to a campaign Web site, download some phone numbers, and make calls on behalf of a candidate.”
Candidates embrace the trend
Media companies are benefiting from the heightened interest. CNN, which drew about 60,000 viewers ages 18 to 34 a night in February 2007, drew 218,000 on an average night this February, numbers that were increased by coverage of several presidential debates. and also posted gains among young viewers last month, with both networks averaging more than 100,000 young viewers in prime time, according to .
Although some college seniors may say they learned about Mr. Obama’s speech about race on CNN, more are likely to have seen it on , where it has been viewed almost 3.4 million times, or on , where it remains among the most shared links.
Candidates are capitalizing on this social development, and so are their supporters. A youth-minded music video called “Yes We Can” has been perhaps the biggest beneficiary. A musical version of Mr. Obama’s campaign speech made by the singer will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and a bevy of celebrities, it was released on three days before the series of coast-to-coast nominating contests on Feb. 5. Counting hits on and other sites, the video has been viewed more than 17 million times.
To a lesser extent, videos of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain have also been traveling through the online networks. A video of Mr. McCain asking citizens what issues matter most in the election has been viewed 300,000 times.
Rather than treating video-sharing Web sites as traditional news sources, young people use them as tools and act as editors themselves.
“We’re talking about a generation that doesn’t just like seeing the video in addition to the story – they expect it,” said Danny Shea, 23, the associate media editor for The Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com). “And they’ll find it elsewhere if you don’t give it to them, and then that’s the link that’s going to be passed around over e-mail and instant message.”
WITH THE YOUNG behind him,’s speeches have become online hits.
Damon Winter/NEW YORK TIMES