Contributors Claire Kiss and Joseph Calvello conducted research to determine the effect of social media on voting patterns in the 2012 election. They found that the Obama campaign had a larger base of “followers” and that the lack of social media from the Romney campaign hurt Republican chances nationally.
Claire Kiss & Joseph A. Calvello
Research Question and Significance
In the 2012 Presidential Election, President Barack Obama defeated Governor Mitt Romney with ease. It could be argued that President Obama was the most vulnerable incumbent candidate since President Jimmy Carter in 1981; Obama finished his first term with a poor economy, a low approval rating of 40% (Daily Presidential Tracking Poll), and multiple unresolved foreign policy issues. Because of this, Obama should not have won this election; however, his use of social media helped him a great deal to get ahead in the race. By using social media as a campaign tool, the Obama campaign was able to reach voters, specifically minority voters of Black and Hispanic ethnicity and young voters (18-29-year-olds), to get the message out to vote for Obama for President.
In the past eight years, multiple outlets of social media have grown significantly to influence a generation. Social Media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have become increasingly prominent in the lives of millions of people throughout the world. As of 2012, there are over 165 million American users on Facebook and over 140 million American Twitter users. Twitter and Facebook have grown into more than social outlets; these sites are now used as ways to report on news and world events in a real time manner to a mass audience of people. In addition to the news, social media sites have become flooded with political activism and campaigning, which has deeply impacted the 2012 Presidential Election.
In the months leading up to the 2012 Election, multiple news media outlets, including CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc started to tag the election as the “Social Media Election”. Social media activity in this election compared to the 2008 Election proves the mass amount of increased political presence on major social media outlets, specifically Facebook and Twitter. In 2008, both major Presidential candidates had accounts on Facebook; President Obama’s Facebook page had over two million likes, while John McCain’s facebook page only had a little over half a million likes (Social Networking ProCon). Compared to the 2012 election campaign, President Obama’s facebook page had close to thirty million likes (Barack Obama – Politician | Facebook), while his opponent, Governor Mitt Romney had around nine million likes (Mitt Romney | Facebook). It is clear that there has been a huge increase in the both amount of social media use by both presidential campaigns and by Facebook users.
Although Twitter was not as prominent in 2008, it erupted as a top social media site by the 2012 Election. On Twitter, Obama had around twenty million followers, (Barack Obama | Twitter), while Romney only had around one million followers, (Mitt Romney | Twitter). While it is true that both campaigns used social media as a form of campaigning, we wanted to find out how the electorate, specifically the minority groups within the electorate perceived the social media based campaign and if it was effective in reaching them during the 2012 election.
Researching social media effects could help Presidential candidates in the future to reach the electorate they need, especially minorities and the youth. Not everyone uses social media, however, so this is not a way to win an entire election, but rather to be able to channel specific groups of people. Because the emergence of social media in political campaigns is such a new phenomenon, there hasn’t been much research on the topic and thus it is crucial to find out the effect this new source of communication has on campaigns. It was important to specifically focus on minorities in this election because in 2008, Obama largely carried the minority vote and since Black and Hispanic population is increasing, “…over the past 10 years, the African American population grew by 12 percent…Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the population. Indeed, they accounted for more than half of the nation’s growth between 2000 and 2010,” (“New Census Data Shows Black Population Growing; but Hispanics and Asians Soaring). Because of this projected population increase, it’s important for candidates in the future to understand how to reach out to these minorities in an efficient way.
When looking at exit poll results it is clear that Obama was able to continue to carry the black vote, he received ninety three percent of the black vote, while his opponent Mitt Romney only received three percent (Politico.com). Obama also managed to carry a majority of the Hispanic vote; he received sixty nine percent of the Hispanic vote, while Romney only carried twenty nine percent of the Hispanic vote (Politico.com). In addition to looking at the Black and Hispanic vote, it is important to also look at the youth vote (18-29). Obama did manage to carry the youth vote, he held a twenty-two point lead over Romney in that category, and managed to take fifty-nine percent of the youth demographic (Politico.com). Although there are numerous other reasons that Blacks, Hispanics, and young voters (18-29) voted for Obama, we believe that Obama’s social media campaign allowed his campaign to reach these demographics easily, consistently, and effectively.
Mass media has emerged into society in a number of waves. It started with popular press, cinema, and radio in the late nineteen thirties. Back then, media “attributed considerable power to shape opinion and believe, change habits of life, actively mould behaviour and impose political systems even against resistance,” (McQuail, D 1977). President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the radio to connect to the American people during his fireside chats. The next significant phase of media came with the new surge of television in the 1960s. A popular example of the connection of media to politics in this phase was the 1960 Presidential debate with John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the first ever televised Presidential Debate. Kennedy was fit and tan, while Nixon was sweaty and pale, and even though Nixon was favored to win, this phase of media taught the country that looks matter, and thus Kennedy took the ticket. (Terry 2012). The flow of new media into society opened up new frontiers to discuss not only daily life, but also politics.
Now, with a new generation, comes a new form of media; social media. Social media integrates technology, social interaction, and content creation to collaboratively connect online information, (Herman 2012). This source media started in early 2000’s with websites like MySpace and Flickr. Since then, the social media scene has changed completely; it’s not just about connecting people, it’s about connecting real time news to people all around the world. On websites like Facebook and Twitter, users can post thoughts, pictures, videos, and links to other websites. Their followers can then like, comment on, or share these updates. This creates an immediate chain of information. Users can also search to find like-minded people, specifically politically. One can search Barack Obama’s Facebook page and see who of their own friends are following Obama. Social media thus creates a network without having to see or talk face to face to anyone. There are new ways to be social, ones that involve being simultaneously isolated and connected. Politics has to be a part of this environment. (Lilleker, Vedel 2013)
Social media sites carry advantages over traditional media for a number of reasons. They have created benefits such as increasing the potential for candidate exposure at a low cost or no cost, providing lesser-known candidates with a viable outlet to divulge their message, and allowing campaigns to raise contributions and recruit volunteers online. (Gueorguieva, V. 2008). It is free to join most social media sites, which is a reason why they have become so popular, and once you have an account, you can design it to present yourself however you want. For political candidates, this is very important because they can frame themselves in a way to reach specific constituents. Social media sites are also strategic for lesser known candidates because it puts them at an equal playing field as everyone else; that’s what’s great about these sites – every user is equal on Facebook, we are all on an equal playing field, even Presidential candidates like Barack Obama.
These sites are all about creating networks, every user making their own network with whomever they want, and this usually ends up being comprised of like-minded people. In this case, people can join specific groups devoted to the candidate they support, or see their friends are supporting a specific candidate and conform to their liking; or opposite, where they see their friend supports the candidate they oppose and remove them from their network – in essence, the user is in charge of their own network. This in turn mobilizes constituents to come together, volunteer, donate, and vote. Results from a survey of undergraduate students (N = 683) at a large public university in the Midwestern United States showed that political activity on Facebook (e.g., posting a politically oriented status update, becoming a “fan” of a candidate) is a significant predictor of other forms of political participation (e.g., volunteering for an organizing, signing a paper or online petition)… (Vitak, et al 2011). Evidence shows that political use of social network sites and blogs is positively related to political efficacy, political participation, and online political behaviors such as online political discussion and online participation (Gil de Zúñiga et al.,2009; Kim & Geidner,2008; Valenzuela et al.,2009).
Social media first showed its strength in politics during the 2008 Presidential Election. In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, social network sites such as Facebook allow users to share their political beliefs, support specific candidates, and interact with others on political issues, (Vitak, et al 2011). Barack Obama used social media to his advantage, and with his social media campaign, beat John McCain for President. This election, even deemed “The Facebook Election”, was known for Obama’s “rock the vote” rally, which resulted him winning, “70 percent of the vote among Americans under age 25—the highest percentage since U.S. exit polling began in 1976” (Fraser, Dutta 2008). In the 2008 election, Obama’s Facebook page had over two million likes, while John McCain’s Facebook page only had a little over half a million likes (Social Networking ProCon.org). Barack Obama used social media sites, like Facebook and YouTube to reach out to specific demographics, especially young voters, and by appealing to them and being on the same level as them, he became more liked, literally and metaphorically.
Obama helped secure the youth (18-29 year olds) vote during the 2008 election through his use of social media. By having success in 2008 in reaching the youth through social media, Obama made sure to reach them again in 2012. It is clear that the youth still use Internet, specifically social media sites with much frequency. Seventy-two percent of online 18-29 year olds use social media networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook; this is forty percent higher than users 30 and older (Lenhart, Purcell, Zickuhr 2010). When looking at Twitter use specifically, thirty-seven percent of people 18-29 use twitter or post status updates (Lenhart, Purcell, Zickuhr 2010). It is clear that people 18-29 years old are moving beyond regular forms of media use and are now using social media to access information. Some consider the Internet to be democratizing medium because it can increase access to information and allow citizens to voice their opinions (Morris,1999). From this perspective, the Internet brings more citizens into the political process and may be particularly effective at engaging young people (Delli Carpini,2000).
Through Obama’s “rock the vote” campaign, he succeeded tremendously in reaching the youth vote in the 2008 Election. Obama showed his skills in reaching young voters again in the 2012 Election. By the statistics above, it is very clear that young adults use the Internet, specifically social media, to share and receive information from their friends. So many young adults use social media sites because users can experience politics on a more familiar, personal level through the postings of friends and acquaintances. Such experiences would make politics more accessible, bringing it into the daily lives of young adults and affecting their interest in political situations, (Kushin, M. J., & Yamamoto, M). The complex part of this relationship between political interest and social media brings the question, “But does it get to them to the polls?” because in reality, that’s what really what matters. The answer to this question is easy to explain when you look at who voted in the 2008 and 2012 Elections.
Historically, young voters ages 18-29 have been known to have very low turnout. However, according to a study done by Kirby and Kawashima-Ginsberg, the percentage point difference of voter turnout of voters age 18-29 between 2004 and 2008 has increased by 2 (+2). 2008 saw the largest youth voter turnout since exit polling began in 1972. Not only did the youth have a very high voter turnout, but they have been the Democratic Party’s largest supporting age group since 2000 (Young Voters in the 2008 Election). However, the 2008 Election was different than any before, sixty-six percent of those under age 30 voted for Barack Obama, making the disparity between young voters and other age groups larger than in any presidential election since 1972 (Young Voters in the 2008 Election). As of 2008, there was a 19-point gap in youth vote between the Democratic (45%) and Republican (26%) parties.
This was still evident in the 2012 Election – Obama might have lost a little ground among young voters under thirty, but still won by 24 points against Mitt Romney (60% to 36%) (Young Voters Supported Obama Less, But May Have Mattered More). The shows that Obama’s campaign was able to reach the youth voter more effectively than the other campaigns.
Obama’s social media success in 2008 gave the 2012 Obama Campaign confidence that they could use social media to reach other voters as well as young voters, such as Black and Hispanic voters. It is clear that Blacks and Hispanics no longer use traditional media sources such as TV and Radio to access information as much as they do Internet. They are living in an age where they are beyond traditional media. An important form of new media is Twitter; twenty-eight percent of Black and fourteen percent of Hispanic internet users use Twitter compared to just twelve percent of whites (Brenner and Smith 2012). Twitter is not just a source that is used on desktop computer or laptop it is used via mobile phones as well; seventeen percent of Black and twelve percent of Hispanic smartphone users state they used Twitter on their phone, while only seven percent of whites use it on their phone (Brenner and Smith 2012). It is surprising to see the increase of a gap between Whites and Hispanic mobile Twitter users, which may be due to the fact that only twenty-four percent of white cell phone users go online “mostly” through using their cell phones, compared to forty-two percent of Hispanics, and fifty-one percent of Blacks (Smith 2012). It is important to see the overall majority of Black and Hispanic Twitter users. In addition to accessing twitter on their phones, Blacks are the most active users of mobile Internet and their use is growing at a rapid rate (Bruckman and Yardi 2012).
The results of this study show that similar to the youth vote, Blacks and Hispanics are heavy users of social media and mobile Internet; both demographics have moved far beyond the use of traditional media. The Obama campaign understands this and has used it to secure their votes in the 2012 election by having a heavy presence on social media sites that were frequently visited by Black and Hispanics, which it made it easy for these groups to see and learn about the campaign easier. Obama focused on reaching these demographics in ways that Romney did not. The Obama campaign was not focusing just on politics when building their online campaign, they were focusing on marketing – the appearances. They wanted their social media campaign to appeal to Blacks and Hispanics; they made their campaign very alive over Twitter and mobile media in general. Through their heavy usage of social media, the potential Black and Hispanic voters were being constantly informed to vote.
Whereas Twitter is more about giving and receiving information, Facebook is more about the profile and making a name out of someone. On Twitter, users gain information a lot easier and faster than using traditional media or reading an entire news article. It is a shortcut to news so users can be politically informed while not having to read hundreds of pages; instead, they just click a button. Facebook users can say and do whatever they want on Facebook to make them more appealing and likable – they make their profile as a way to present himself or herself as someone that a voter could support.
Social media users favor these sites because they are easy to use and easy to access information. Twitter as a social media device is all about information and news sharing. On Twitter, a user only has a small space to express them; this leads to compound and concise information sharing. Even though the Obama campaign had a large presence on Twitter, they still had to present their messages in a space of 140 characters or less, thus making their messages to potential voters easy to read, understandable, and relatable too.
The Obama campaign utilized the idea of being on the same level as Facebook users. In a world where every profile is essentially equal, Obama used this to appeal as an ordinary man. This helped him in 2008 because he was lesser known than John McCain, this new view appealed to voters because they want a President that understands them as people, a President that is on their level. In 2012, this helped Obama, especially with minorities, because they wanted to be understood, and Obama drove his online campaign to assure them that he understood them. He constantly posted pictures of him smiling; pictures with “regular” people, especially diverse people; and pictures with his family, these pictures made him look like he really cares about everyone. In pictures on Obama’s Facebook, he is surrounded by racially diverse individuals, making him look wanted and liked by them, which sets off a social media chain of reactions and spreads like wildfire. In 2009, William Frey studied how race had an effect in the 2008 presidential election and concluded that the upcoming younger generations of voters will be more racially diverse than in the past. Much attention was given to these voters [18-29-year-olds] in 2008 by virtue of their strong support for the multiracial, Democratic candidate Obama, (Frey 2009). Once users saw that other racial minorities accepted Obama, they conformed to like them as well. Obama became the “cool”, well-liked choice, and utilized this position in the 2012 election as well.
Our hypothesis is that through Obama’s social media campaign, he was able to reach the Black, Hispanic and Youth demographic easily, consistently, and effectively. Blacks, Hispanics, and Youth are the most common users of Twitter and mobile media; they are constantly tied into the social media world and not only do they access it from their computer but from their mobile devices as well, constantly checking their networks. Black, Hispanic and Youth voters were more likely to see and view the social media campaign that Obama had enacted. Overall, we accepted that Black, Hispanic, and Youth voters preferred Obama social media campaign to Romney’s due to the fact that Obama purely out muscled the Romney social media campaign, thus making the Obama campaign more alive and active, and thus made it more available and easily accessible to Hispanic, Black and Youth voters. These voters preferred Obama campaign because it was easily accessible and constantly being marketed toward them through social media.
Methods and Data
Our exit poll was conducted throughout the state of Massachusetts through UMass Polls; we had representatives administering our surveys in ten precincts across the state. The exit poll was a self-administered poll that was given to voters who were randomly selected on their way out of their voting precinct. In total, we conducted 1,179 exit polls throughout the day.
There were three different versions of the exit polls. We asked two questions pertaining to our research project that were on the same version of the survey and came one after another. First, respondents were asked whether social media influenced them in this election. Specifically, our first question read, “Did you use social media, like Twitter or Facebook, to help you reach your decision on who to vote for?” Our second question asked the respondent who they believed used social media better in the election, specifically, our second question read, “Which candidate used social media best.”
For the candidate preference question, the respondents were provided with the options to respond Obama, Romney, or neither. Forty-four percent said Obama, while forty-five percent said neither. Romney did not do as well – he only received ten percent of the voters’ approval. Looking at the results it must be noted that in retrospect, we regret putting neither down as an option. We believe that by having this option it allowed people to opt out of the question and thus skewed our results.
Looking at our base results, we did not receive the information we intended to, notably for our first question. Although overall “influence” of social media was low, respondents still indicated that Obama did a much better at using social media than Romney. Our interest was to see which specific demographic of people believed that Obama used social media better, and to see how Obama was more effective to reach these people through his use of social media. Many respondents approached this question through a partisan frame as evidenced by the fact that a majority said that the candidate they supported used social media better. It is important to note that thirty-one percent of Independents believed that Obama used social media better, while only thirteen percent of Independents believed Romney used it better. We believe that these responses by Independents were less skewed by party identification simply because they didn’t identify as belonging to either of the candidates’ parties, and would show a more accurate representation of who used social media better.
Not only were the results we received for the social media question extremely low, but when cross tabulated against other variables, the results yielded patterns that were not statistically significant. Table 1 shows the results of the social media question when cross-tabulated against the party identification question; this gave us a p-value of .18. Therefore, the results we got from this question could not be viewed as statistically significant. In addition to cross tabulating the social media question with party identification, we also cross-tabulated it with race, these results can be seen in Table 2. The results from this cross tabulation had a p value of .29; this high p-value also makes these results statistically insignificant.
Table 1: Social Media Influence Cross Tabulated with Party Identification
P value= .18
Table 2: Social Media Influence Cross Tabulated with Race
P value= .29
When looking at Table 1 it is clear that turnout for our question was low, but it is interesting to see that 7% voters who identify as Independents stated that social media influenced them this election, this is two percent higher than Democrats (five percent), and six percent higher than Republicans (one percent). It is interesting that Independents were more influenced by social media in this election. When looking at table two its evident that there is a large gap between social media and race, twenty-four percent of Blacks, twenty-two percent of Hispanics, and only twelve percent of Whites. It is clear that Hispanics and Blacks recognized the effect social media had on them more than White people. Although both of these statistics yield a high p-value and are not considered statistically significant, we still believe they give us useful insight on who specifically was influenced.
In addition to cross-tabulating race and party identification with the social media question, we also cross-tabulated it against voter age. We received a p-value of .0003 thus making our results statistically significant. When looking at our results it is clear that 18-29 year olds were most influenced by social media during this election; thirty percent of them responded yes, Compared to twenty percent of 30-39 year olds, and only seven percent of 40-49 year olds. Through looking at these results, it shows us that 18-29 year olds were much more influenced by social media use during this election.
The question that asked respondents who they believed used social media better yielded much better results than the social media question did. When looking at the proportion of respondents to the question, forty-four percent said that Obama used social media best while only ten percent said Romney used it best. These results show that the general population believed that Obama was more effective on social media than Romney. We need to find out who the people who thought Obama used social media more effectively were to better understand the extent of influence social media can potentially have on campaigns in the future. The first variable we cross-tabulated the candidate preference question against was party identification. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats, thirty-one percent of Independents, and three percent of Republicans thought that Obama used social media better. While only three percent of Democrats, thirteen percent of Independents, and thirty percent of Republicans thought that Romney used social media better. These results can be viewed as having a party bias to them, since it is clear that voters tended to choose the candidate of their party as the person who used social media more effectively. The p-value of this comparison was zero, thus these results were statistically significant. It is clear that people will favor their party’s candidate, but it is interesting to see that voters who identified as Independents overwhelmingly thought that Obama used social media more effectively. This information can be perceived that even though these voters did not specifically lean one way on party lines, they still believed that Obama was able to be more effective on social media. Even though it is obvious that Democrats would mostly look at Obama’s Facebook and Twitter and Republicans would mostly look at Romney’s Facebook and Twitter, this says a lot about Independents because they weren’t learning a specific way to begin with, thus they were not biased.
We received statistically significant results from cross tabulating the question of candidate preference and party identification, but our key findings relates to the role of race and the question of candidate preference. Table 3 shows the stark contrast of race in relation to the question of candidate preference. When looking at Table 3 it is very clear that both Black and Hispanic respondents believed that Obama used social media much better than Romney. It is clear that Obama’s social media campaign was able to reach these two groups more effectively than it was able to reach White people. Table 3 does not only show that Obama was able to reach Black and Hispanics effectively, but it also shows how far away Romney was from reaching them, only twelve percent of White respondents felt that Romney used social media better, compared to only one percent of Black respondents and zero percent of Hispanic respondents. These results all had a p-value of 0, making them statistically significant.
Table 3: Which Candidate Used Social Media Better Cross Tabulated with Race
P value= 0
It was clear that during the 2012 presidential campaign that the Obama campaign was much more active on social media, and through their activity on social media it helped them to capture the vote of many Black, Hispanic, and Youth voters. Our exit poll proved that Obama was able to communicate to Blacks, Hispanics, and Youth voters (age 18-29) through his positive use of social media. We believe that since these demographics overwhelmingly supported Obama, it allowed him to win the 2012 Election.
The biggest difference between Romney and Obama’s social media campaign was the extent of attention each campaign got from voters; Obama had a much larger base of “followers” on social media sites than Romney did. Obama’s large social media network allowed him to contact more people and to get his message across. The Obama campaign understood that people are constantly getting information fed to them through social media, and they used this to their advantage. Even on election night they were tweeting and telling people to stay in the long lines in Ohio and Virginia and show their support. Obama used this steadfast feed to get in these voters’ subconscious; he constantly posted aesthetically pleasing images on Facebook and Twitter to appeal to the eyes of his followers. These images helped followers get more politically involved on these social media sites and thus helped connect like-minded users. According to or exit poll results, it was clear that racially minorities and youth voters were more captivated by Obama’s social media campaign, which was a huge reason why Obama won this electorate, and in the end, this election.
Romney’s lack of social media use negatively affected the Republican Party in the 2012 election. It is clear that Democrats have an advantage in the social media realm, and that these outlets are only going to get more prominent and important in the years to come. By the 2016 Presidential election, Republicans need to realize that television and other forms of traditional media are not the only way that people receive information anymore and that social media is used everyday by millions of people not only to communicate with each but also to receive information. Also, as these young voters grow up, they will still turn to social media, as that is how they were raised. And as the new generation grows up, they will only be taught the same. If the Republicans continue their heavy television advertising campaign in 2016 they will fail to reach a large portion of the electoral and will yet again lose the election. In 2012 many Republicans stated that the electoral is no longer the “electoral of their fathers”, but Republicans need to realize that the media is no longer that of their “fathers”. It is time to change.
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