Facebook, Twitter, Instagram part of the political landscape

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Not long ago, Election Day meant stepping into the polling booth, pulling the curtain closed and partaking in the all-American tradition of one man, one vote.

That booth is getting mighty crowded lately, what with thousands of friends on social media in there as well.

"You get on Facebook and everybody is looking at your newsfeed, and it's all about the election," said Chelsea McKean, 19, a Gettysburg native who attends the University of Pittsburgh.

Ms. McKean said the election buzz was so intense, she considered ditching her Twitter account, at least until things quieted down.

"I was just tired of everyone saying 'If you don't vote for [Mitt] Romney, you're dumb' and 'If you don't vote for [President Barack] Obama, then you're dumb,' " she said.

When the electronic age began featuring teams of newsmen and pollsters predicting the outcome of presidential races, sitting at home watching returns on television was the thing to do. To be sure, the networks cleared their schedules for just that Tuesday night, but increasingly, social media is the place to be for real-time opinions and trends.

Even Mr. Obama -- or someone on his team -- made an 11th-hour plea for votes on Reddit.com, a social media site where users decide whether content is important or not by "upvoting" or "downvoting" posts.

"If you voted already, don't stop there -- spread the word to your friends, roommates and neighbors," said the president, who earlier this year took to Reddit for a chat. "Think of it as upvoting."

Trending on Twitter were #ivoted and #election2012, where the discourse was fairly civil and celebrities such as Fergie (she's for Mr. Obama) were trying to influence their many followers.

Facebook instituted a prompt at the top of users' pages Tuesday to "watch the nation vote in real time."

The results were constantly updated at www.facebookstories.com/vote, where by 7:20 p.m., more than 7 million responses showed that female Facebook users were out in force (about 4.8 million to 2.4 million men).

The figures, aggregated and anonymized by the social media giant, also showed where and when users were voting. And -- no big surprise, given the youthful aspect of social media -- the two groups voting most were ages 18-24 and 24-36.

"I think people are proud they voted, and they want everyone to know their opinions. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing if it gets more people out to vote," Ms. McKean said.

Also out Tuesday was the latest in the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. A survey of more than 1,000 registered voter respondents showed that 22 percent planned to use social media to express their voting preference.

Twenty-five percent of these claimed to be supporters of the president, with 20 percent for Mr. Romney. Thirty percent said they had been encouraged via social media to vote, with another 20 percent reporting they'd encouraged others that way.

Instagram, which is au courant among users of social media, embraces the idea of "one picture is worth a thousand words." The election process was big indeed on Instagram, where one trending hashtag (#vote) had more than 680,000 photos posted by Tuesday evening.

Some clicked away at the polling places, showing everything from long lines to tables laden with baked goods. A well-viewed picture had one voter in a "Sesame Street" outfit paired with the caption "I know who Big Bird is voting for."

Another was of a sign reading, "If Obama wins, I'm leaving the country. If Romney wins, I'm leaving the country. This has nothing to do with politics. I just want to travel."

Some people shot photos or video of their actual electronic ballot, a practice possibly illegal in some states, including West Virginia.

"It's just one of many aspects of life that have become much more public in the age of social media," said David Harris, a professor of law at Pitt. "People post things about themselves online that 10 years ago you would never have thought to say except to their closest friends.

"With people of a younger age, you could almost say 'If you don't have pictures of it up online, it didn't happen to you.' "

A Perry County man used his phone to take a video that went viral of his voting machine repeatedly changing his attempt to vote for Mr. Obama into a vote for Mr. Romney.

"This is another way the world is changing. Taking a photo or a video of a machine malfunctioning does not strike me as a bad use of that tool, of having a camera wherever you are, with your phone," said Mr. Harris, adding that his son sent him a photo of his first time at the polls Tuesday.

And, of course, what is social media without a false alarm or two? Myth-debunking website www.Snopes.com addressed one making the rounds since 2008.

This week on Facebook, through mass emails and on various social media sites, came this warning to avoid straight-party voting.

"DO NOT SELECT" the all-Democratic party button first, was the claim, because doing so apparently would not count as a vote for Barack Obama.

According to Snopes, this probably stems from a law in North Carolina -- the one state where it is illegal to vote for both a presidential candidate and a straight-party system with the touch of one button.

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Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478. Twitter: @MariaSciulloPG.


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