What resonated with Obama’s and Romney’s Facebook followers?

As the nation waits to find out who our next president will be, I thought it would be interesting to take a quick look at how Obama’s and Romney’s Facebook followers reacted to content posted to the candidates’ official Facebook walls. As part of a larger research project, I’m extracting all public comments posted to both walls between April 25 (the day the RNC endorsed Romney) and November 2, 2012. While doing so, I noticed some clear patterns in the kinds of content each group of followers showed most interest in. By charting the numbers of likes, shares, and comments for each message during the aforementioned time period, we can get a sense of when attention spiked and how much. Examining the top five most liked, shared, and commented-on posts reveals what topics attracted the most Facebook attention during the final leg of the campaign. Let’s start with Obama:

Likes, shares, and comments on Obama’s official Facebook wall, 4/25/12 – 11/02/12

As you’ve probably already noticed, I’ve included the associated text for the top five most-liked posts in the dataset and the images associated with the first four in chronological order. (I didn’t have room for the fifth image, but the text speaks for itself best among the five.) The first thing that jumped out at me here was how none of the top five most-liked posts had anything to do with politics–they were scenes from the Obamas’ family life, the kinds of moments that could be found in any American family photo album. The wholesome sentiments these shots convey couldn’t be farther from the knock-down drag-out negativity flooding the airwaves and the Internet throughout the timeframe, which may explain why they were so popular among Obama fans.

Romney’s fans, however, show a very different pattern:

Likes, shares, and comments on Romney’s official Facebook wall, 4/25/12 – 11/02/12

All of Romney’s top five most-liked posts were direct calls to push their “like” count over some numerical threshold. Romney’s fans seem to be more goal-oriented than Obama’s: rather than reveling in idyllic family scenes, they were most interested in showing off their support for Romney to their Facebook friends. One broader interpretation here is that Romney’s Facebook fans were more engaged in the campaign than Obama’s, who seemed less inclined to get political. This is also reflected in the fact that although Obama had much higher median numbers of likes (111,231 vs 64,182), shares (11,753 vs. 3644), and comments (7309 vs. 4376) than Romney during this period, Romney had much higher “like” peaks. (Romney posted over twice as many messages than Obama, so his “like” totals are higher: 58.5M to 42.7M.)

Likes vs. shares vs. comments

How did the most-liked messages stack up against the most-shared and most-commented-on messages? Let’s have a look, starting with Obama:

Rank LikedText NLikes SharedText NShares CommentedText NComments
1 20 years ago today. 674164 If you’re on Team Obama, let him know. 170046 It’s Barack’s birthday today–wish him a happy one by signing his card! http://OFA.BO/HHfZev 75876
2 The most important meeting of the day. 657501 Share if you agree: President Obama won the final debate because his leadership has made America stronger, safer, and more secure than we were four years ago. 95212 President Obama believes everybody deserves a fair shot–not just some: http://OFA.BO/8L6BWy 53537
3 Summer. 615734 Add your name, then pass it on: http://OFA.BO/8UHQcn 91234 Add your name, then pass it on: http://OFA.BO/8UHQcn 45674
4 “Being married to Michelle, and having these tall, beautiful, strong-willed girls in my house, never allows me to underestimate women.” –“President Obama 573270 http://OFA.BO/HxgaZz [link goes to a signup page for the OFA mailing list] 85407 [photo of Obama captioned "Same-sex couples should be able to get married."] 41685
5 Michelle’s biggest fans watching her convention speech from home last night. 554713 Share this with your friends and family if you support this plan to keep us moving forward. 63551 Share if you agree: President Obama won the final debate because his leadership has made America stronger, safer, and more secure than we were four years ago. 39469

My quick read on this table is that Obama supporters use shares and comments much more politically than they use likes. The top five most-shared messages are all about general support for Obama as opposed to specific policy issues. Comments are a mixed bag, with the top spot going to a call for birthday wishes and the fourth spot containing the sole policy statement in the entire table. The remaining most-commented posts are similar in nature to the most-shared.

Romney’s most-shared and -commented posts are both similar to and different from Obama’s:

Rank LikedText NLikes SharedText NShares CommentedText NComments
1 We’re almost to 5 million likes — help us get there! ‘Like’ and share this with your friends and family to show you stand with Mitt! 1167589 We don’t belong to government, the government belongs to us. 93329 We’re almost to 5 million likes — help us get there! ‘Like’ and share this with your friends and family to show you stand with Mitt! 105839
2 We’re almost there – Help us get to 10 million Likes! 1112300 It’s the people of America that make it the unique nation that it is. ‘Like’ if you agree that entrepreneurs, not government, create successful businesses. 70373 The American people know we’re on the wrong track, but how will President Obama get us on the right track? http://mi.tt/S8WQWZ 66622
3 Stand with Mitt. ‘Like’ and share to help us get to 6 million Likes! 986653 We’re almost to 5 million likes — help us get there! ‘Like’ and share this with your friends and family to show you stand with Mitt! 62905 Like and share to help us get to 8 million likes! 62691
4 Help us get to 7 million likes! ‘Like’ and share to show you’re with Mitt. 719837 Like and share to help us get to 8 million likes! 46524 The path we’re taking is not working. It is time for a new path. Donate today and help us get America back on track http://mi.tt/QZkDpL 52059
5 Like and share to help us get to 8 million likes! 614492 I intend to lead and to have an America that’s strong and helps lead the world. ‘Like’ and share if you will stand with me. 39652 We don’t have to settle. America needs a new path to a real recovery. Contribute $15 and help us deliver it. http://mi.tt/Tacap0 47732

Romney’s most-shared messages are similar to Obama’s in their lack of specificity. Unlike Obama, there is some overlap between the three modes of interaction–at least one “help us get to X million likes” post shows up on each list. The most interesting thing about the most-commented posts is that three of the five posts are pretty clear attacks on Obama, while I see a couple of Obama’s most-commented as indirect attacks at best. The idea that “everybody deserves a fair shot, not just some” could be a shot at Romney’s supposed elitism, but the claim that Obama’s “leadership has made America stronger, safer, and more secure than we were four years ago” is more about Obama than about Romney.

Closing thoughts

I think these data show some definite patterns in the types of engagement the Romney and Obama Facebook pages elicited. One important point about these data I want to stress is that they say much more about each campaign’s supporters than they do about the candidates. For example, Obama asked his supporters to like and share content, and Romney talked about his family, but those posts didn’t resonate as much with their followers. I also find the contrast with Twitter quite instructive–many studies, including my own research, have found Twitter activity to be highly event-driven, spiking when big stories break. Activity on the candidates’ walls looks to be much less so–few of the top five messages reference time-specific events, and few were posted on milestone days for either campaign. So it looks to me like the campaigns have a much greater capacity to drive attention with particular types of content on Facebook than on Twitter, which functions as more of a real-time information distribution network.

If anything in particular jumps out at you in this data or you disagree with any of my interpretations, I’d love to hear about it in comments.

One Response to What resonated with Obama’s and Romney’s Facebook followers?

  1. Interesting stuff.

    It would be nice to correlate this stuff to (or at least look at it in the context of) Aaron Shaw’s work (http://aaronshaw.org/research/) on online political structures (http://abs.sagepub.com/content/56/4/459.abstract). The top-down structure he found in Republican online communities suggests that Romney fans might be more willing to respond to instruction-like posts (e.g., share if, or like if) than Obama fans. Similarly, Democrats’ grass roots approach to developing content might create a more random set of likes/shares than you would find on the Romney page.

    Just a suggested explanation. Cheers!

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