How social media made the Todd Akin story viral

A detailed look at how Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s controversial remarks went viral shows the potential huge role of social media in the electoral process.

Akin, a Republican,  faces a Tuesday deadline on resigning from his race against Democratic foe Claire McCaskill. And while the political parties debate his remarks about rape—which Akin  retracted and apologized for—the speed of how his story was relayed on Sunday previews a new day in the campaign process.

Constitution Daily went back into the search archives of Google and Bing, to see how a handful of quotes on a Sunday morning local St. Louis TV talk show became a viral Internet story within hours, and then a national news story by Sunday evening.

Our brief, unscientific analysis shows that social media was likely a big factor in making the story viral.

Akin had taped an interview with reporter Charles Jaco a few days before it aired on Fox-affiliate KTVI-TV on Sunday morning. According to Fox2Now.com, the station’s Web site, the video was posted at 10:24 a.m. CT. The segment aired on TV at 8:30 a.m. CT, according to an online station promotion.

The next media mention of the video is on the Web site Talking Points Memo at 2:06 p.m. ET, which has quotes and screen captures from the Akin interview with Jaco.

But the images aren’t from the Fox official Web video. The pictures have a logo for American Bridge 21st Century,  a liberal Political Action Committee, which had “clipped” the video, branded it and put it on YouTube.

“Yesterday American Bridge researchers caught Todd Akin — the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri — when said on-camera that victims of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” the Super PAC said on Monday.

Once Talking Points Memo, a closely followed political blog and Web site, published the clip from American Bridge, the topic of “Todd Akin” quickly trended on Twitter and comments appeared on Facebook. Both products are linked into YouTube, which facilitated the story going viral.

The first highly viewed Twitter message about Akin appeared at 2:34 p.m., within 30 minutes of the Talking Points Memo story. (A look at past Tweets on Akin shows that KTVI actually promoted the Akin interview on August 17, but focused on his quotes about civil rights.)

The web site Gawker relayed the story at 2:45 p.m.

Within 45 minutes, the Washington Post was covering the story on its own political blog and Huffington Post was running the video (with the American Bridge logo cropped out).

At 4:28 p.m. on Sunday, McCaskill issued a statement condemning Akin.

At 4:59 p.m, Akin released a statement, saying he misspoke in the interview.

The Akin controversy is the latest example of how political parties and interest groups can leverage traditional media and the Internet, with social media as the fulcrum.  YouTube, Twitter and Facebook provided the support system for the Akin story to take off.

Akin’s TV appearance was on a Sunday morning talk show, a time period with usually lower viewership. Sunday mornings and afternoons are usually low viewership periods for Web sites.

However,  the social media business has a 24 hour, 7 day a week life cycle, and once the Akin story hit Twitter, and most likely Facebook on Sunday afternoon around 2:30 p.m. ET, it really took off.

Since the 2008 campaign, both political parties have become increasingly social media savvy, with systems to report on their opponents’ mistakes and issue statements – sometimes within seconds.

But the Akin story was put out by a Super PAC, a type of organization with unlimited funding, since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Super PACs on both sides have targeted online search sites like Google for advertising.

Patrick Ruffini, a former George W. Bush strategist involved with the Crossroads Generation Super PAC, told the Guardian in June that Internet spending by third-party groups will trend upward toward election day.

“What will happen online is that you’ll reach a point of saturation. After Labor Day you won’t be able to buy ad space on TV any more, and then online will seem a more attractive vehicle,” Ruffini said.

But as for social media use, the Super PACs haven’t scratched the surface of their potential. The role of social media in the Akin controversy should focus these groups on the low-cost alternative of using competitive intelligence on opponents , via social media.

And while Super PACs have to report their spending on TV ads, there isn’t a huge associated cost for clipping a TV show and alerting a few bloggers. Internet and social media users also tend to click much more on story links than advertisements.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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