07/16/2012 04:32 EDT | Updated 09/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Social media fire lit by '08 Obama campaign may be burning out: professor

OTTAWA - The fire lit under the American electorate by Barack Obama's use of social media in the 2008 election campaign may be sputtering in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election.

That has not stopped candidates from getting ever more aggressive with how they use tools like Twitter and Facebook to get their messages out and keep the money rolling in, says an American political science professor closely watching the campaigns.

"They have all of these things and they are throwing as much stuff out there as they can to see what sticks," said Diana Owen, director of American studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Owen is in Canada this week giving U.S. consulates a primer on social media in the 2012 campaign.

Four years ago, Obama capitalized on growing usage of social media tools to mobilize millions of young voters and rake in millions of dollars.

The Tea Party movement followed up on his successes, drawing on sites like Facebook and Twitter to reinforce a message in the 2010 mid-term campaigns that it was a party of the grassroots.

In both campaigns, social media remained a shiny new tool and its use formed part of the storyline, said Owen.

That novelty has worn off.

"In 2012, I haven't seen anything that is substantively a new way of engaging people," she said.

So voters are in part returning to old habits, the research suggests.

In 2008 and 2010, television's dominance as a source for election news was eroded by online sources, according to the Pew Research Center.

But in 2012, television is again reigning supreme, with 74 per cent of voters using it as their main source of election news, up from 68 per cent in 2008. The number of voters who head online for election news is stable at 36 per cent. The percentage who turn to social media specifically for election information is even lower.

A January 2012 study from the Pew Research Center suggested only five per cent of Internet users turned to Facebook, and only two per cent turned to Twitter.

"In 2012, young people have tuned out," Owen said, which is likely to keep the use of social media as a source of election information low.

But presidential candidates and their parties are still devoting major resources to their online campaigns.

The difference is the data.

The four years spent by the parties since 2008 amassing lists of friends and followers has allowed them to build massive databases. Data mining activities have resulted in as much as 900 bits of information being available on each voter, Owen said.

"The public doesn't know this is happening to them," Owen said.

The data compiled by the parties allows for micro-targeted campaigns both for support and for dollars.

Web-based advertising now accounts for 10 per cent of ad budgets, compared to three per cent in 2008, Owen said.

Much of how candidates uses online tools to advertise is just an updated version of old tricks, Owen said. They use sites like YouTube to compile digital dossiers on their opponents, throwing video clips of past statements online and then bombard email inboxes, Facebook pages and Twitter profiles with links.

It's digitally-based negative advertising, a technique that's long been a campaign hallmark.

And social media tends to skew negative, said Owen.

"If you think of social media as a giant watercooler, this is what's driving it," she said.

But sometimes, the unexpected sticks. Last week, a photo blog put up by the Obama campaign featured a cat, the slogan "Congress, don't be catty," and the tagline: "Democatz for Obama." It attracted almost 2,000 comments in 12 hours.

"Use a cat if you want to get attention," joked Owen.

But will it get a vote at the ballot box?

In a study she did at Georgetown, Owen found that during the 2010 mid-term elections, 27 per cent of voters used social media to help them decide whether to vote for or against a particular candidate.

A further 39 per cent used it to reinforce a decision on who to vote for or against, while 34 per cent said they didn't use it at all.