By: Diane Stirling
Within the first 45 minutes of the first session of the new course, “Social Media in the 2012 Election,” the class hashtag became a top trending topic in the United States on Twitter.
Assistant Professor of Practice Anthony Rotolo, of the School of Information Studies (iSchool), was outlining the syllabus during the first class last week when students noticed the trending status of the “ElectionClass” hashtag. It trended for upwards of an hour. At one point, “ElectionClass” was the #2 trending topic in the United States, according to teaching assistant and iSchool graduate student Jessica Smith.
It’s no wonder. Most of the 120 enrolled students were tweeting their reactions to hearing about the activities in store, creating a stream that updated almost every second. The social media buzz began even before the class met, though, according to their professor. “The course anticipation was incredible. The amount of conversation leading up to the class on Twitter was incredible. This semester, more than any other, students are coming into class ready to go with social media. Right out of the gate, students were tweeting in large volumes,” he said. That situation reflects students’ enthusiasm for their learning experience, plus their understanding of how social media is integrated into that process, Rotolo explained.
“Trending” is a significant achievement, but it wasn’t the only big real-time moment. Students on their laptops scanning the Internet for political updates discovered that President Obama was live online, conducting an AMA (Ask Me Anything) conversation on the social news site Reddit. They brought the news forward; Rotolo urged them to respond by asking Obama to connect with the class.
Such occasions illustrate how today’s students are much more aware of and knowledgeable about the current presidential campaign than might be generally presumed, Rotolo suggested. “So often, it’s said that young people don’t follow politics, but I think that once you put a class together that talks about politics or the election in the context of how they understand it–what happens online and how people are talking about it in social media–you can see that young people do follow politics, they just do it through a different lens.”
Assistant Professor of Public Administration Ines Mergel, of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, is teaching a companion section of the course designed for Maxwell graduate students. Mergel’s extensive study of the use of social media in the public sector and for governance purposes will be among the class topics. Lessons also will focus on how emerging technologies and social media engagement influence political activity and social movements. Students will use trends and data to assess the impact of social media engagement on citizens and voters, and will measure how citizens’ use of social media compares to traditional polling data. Private-sector social media best practices will be reviewed for their application to campaign strategy and communication. Students also will assess how public social media strategies can work in the private sector.
In addition, mock presidential campaigns are planned, with 14 student teams hosting prototype candidates and staging election efforts via social media strategies. They will develop web sites, communicate on Twitter, post videos to the Web, and serve as social media strategists, media producers, pollsters, data analysts and press bloggers, among other roles. Mock primary races, debates, and an election night “watch party” (covering both the class election and the general election) are planned. Several actual candidates, strategists, and campaign leaders are scheduled to Skype into classroom discussions. The professor has connected with a representative of the Obama campaign, and has reached out to the Romney effort, too. Since Romney’s campaign is led by a Maxwell graduate, “we would love it if either or both of the candidates spoke to the class or acknowledged the work students are doing in class,” Rotolo commented.
Rotolo’s idea for the course began with the 2008 Obama campaign, because “it changed the playing field and created a lot of content to talk about,” and he wanted to “create a class that reflected and discussed the significance of that.” He believes the outcome of the student campaigns “is going to be a lot of fun. Students are going to enjoy it, but at the same time, I think they will realize that they have learned a lot about the specifics of the 2012 election and how these social media campaigns are reaching people. I think students are going to have a crazy ride this semester, just like the real elections,” Rotolo concluded.