At some point in the next two years, the pollsters and ad makers who steer American presidential campaigns will be stumped: The nightly tracking polls are showing a dramatic swing in the opinions of the electorate, but neither of two typical factors — huge news or a major advertising buy — can explain it. They will, eventually, realize that the viral, mass conversation about politics on Facebook and other platforms has finally emerged as a third force in the core business of politics, mass persuasion.
Facebook is on the cusp — and I suspect 2016 will be the year this becomes clear — of replacing television advertising as the place where American elections are fought and won. The vast new network of some 185 million Americans opens the possibility, for instance, of a congressional candidate gaining traction without the expense of television, and of an inexpensive new viral populism. The way people share will shape the outcome of the presidential election. Even during the 2014 midterms, which most Americans ignored, Facebook says it saw 43 million unique individuals engage in the political conversation. Now a rawly powerful video may reach far more voters in a few hours than a multimillion-dollar ad buy; and it will reach them from trusted sources — their friends — not via suspect, one-way channels.
And so we at BuzzFeed News are deeply excited to have nearly exclusive access (it's shared with a broadcast partner, ABC News) to a powerful new window into the largest political conversation in America. This data will be drawn from a Facebook project working in the tricky field of "sentiment analysis," the attempt to analyze people's feelings based on what they write, which we think may be the most important new source of political data in the 2016 elections. This project will allow BuzzFeed News reporters to ask Facebook for data on, for instance, how Iowans feel about Hillary Clinton, or which Republican candidate appears to be best liked by women.
The field of sentiment analysis is as famous for its pitfalls as for any successes. Sentiment analysis has been bad at detecting sarcasm, for instance. But there's good reason to think that if anyone can pull this off, it will be Facebook. First, it has access to a far, far larger sample of natural language than any other social network. What's more, that carries with it contextual data that can serve as a point of departure for sentiment analysis — the field, in particular, that allows people to include how they're feeling or what they're doing when they post status updates. And third, Facebook quite simply has some of the best data scientists in the world, and has built a company on a deep and comprehensive understanding of user data. We're also comfortable with Facebook's approach to its users' privacy with this data, which is anonymous and aggregate, with no data available for groups of interactions under 1,000.
The Facebook sentiment data BuzzFeed News will have access to is a new window into not just what Americans are talking about, but which way their sentiment is moving.
Some details from the first simple cut of sentiment data we got, spanning Oct. 26 to Nov. 5: Clinton, the most discussed Democrat on Facebook, and Warren have almost identical sentiment ratings — 57% positive and 40% negative for Clinton; 56% positive and 40% negative for Warren.
Fascinatingly, Joe Biden, though subject of just a quarter Clinton's volume of conversation, is also viewed in a warmer light, with 67% of the conversation about him positive — a hint of the sort of politician, raw and authentic and occasionally stumbling, who thrives in this new medium.
On the Republican side, Chris Christie is the most discussed figure, but the results are far more mixed: 47% of the sentiment is positive, 45% negative. The twist: The conversation about Christie is far more negative inside his home state of New Jersey than outside it — just 33% positive in the state, but 52% positive outside it. The most warmly viewed Republicans are Condoleezza Rice and Paul Ryan. Sentiment about Jeb Bush, meanwhile, is underwater.
BuzzFeed News' staff, led on this project by Political Editor Katherine Miller and Data Editor Jeremy Singer-Vine and their teams, will dive deep into this data over the next two years. We anticipate bringing our readers and the broader web both daily updates and more complex news and analyses, always treating the data with analytical rigor, and comparing it with public polling and other sources of information. The data will be granular enough to see trends among and between states, between men and women inside states, and among age groups.
The Facebook sentiment data isn't a substitute for polling, in part because the huge sample of Americans on Facebook still isn't co-extensive with the electorate, but the sentiment data has the potential to be an important and telling complement to it.
We are devoting resources to this sentiment data set because of its place in the broad and evolving shift in American politics toward the social web.
This shift is not just about Facebook. First, starting about 10 years ago, political organizing and small-dollar fundraising moved to email, a good channel for politicians to communicate directly with their most loyal supporters. Then the inside conversation moved to the social web first, with the abrupt shift from the political blogosphere to Twitter in 2009 and 2010.
Candidates, however, have struggled to take the third and most vital element of politics — mass persuasion — to the web, and remain reliant on the dusty 30-second television ad, blasted out to voters in the least targeted way imaginable.
What is beginning to dawn on campaigns is that persuasion works differently when it relies on sharing. It is a political truism that people are most likely to believe what their friends and neighbors tell them, a truth that explains everything from sophisticated and earnest door-knocking efforts to malign email-forward whispering campaigns. And the social conversation favors things that generations of politicians have been trained to avoid: spontaneity, surprise, authenticity, humor, raw edge, the occasional human stumble. (Joe Biden!) As mobile becomes increasingly central to the social web, I suspect that more voters in 2016 will be persuaded by a video in their Facebook mobile browsers than by any other medium.
This isn't a change in how the same politicians and campaigns distribute the same old media. It's a deeper change in which politicians will thrive. Platforms have always shaped presidential politics — think of John F. Kennedy's native grasp of television — and the 2016 election has the potential to be another turning point.
A few modern politicians appear to have a real feel for the raw emotion and, sometimes, (apparent) spontaneity that people will want to share. Elizabeth Warren's blunt and casual economic 2011 tirade and Ted Cruz's theatrical confrontations (and even his own low-production-value cell phone videos) are the beginnings of that viral populism for which the social web has opened a real space.
BuzzFeed News' new project with Facebook sentiment data will tell us and our readers how this new viral politics affects the Americans it reaches. And the stakes, the presidency, are as high as they get.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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