Has Digg Already Picked the President?

The emerging technology of social networking is affecting the political process. Or is it?
It's a longstanding tradition in American politics: Newspapers officially endorse local and national politicians running for office and for each major parties' nominations. For example, the New York Times has endorsed Senators John McCain for the Republican nomination and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

The purpose of endorsements isn't to predict the outcome, but to influence it. Still, an analysis of major newspaper endorsements is just one of the metrics political pundits use to guess who might win an election.

The idea behind the newspaper endorsement tradition is that you, the reader and voter, choose a newspaper based on trust and a history of agreement with the editors' perspectives on politics. If you're on the fence about a candidate, a newspaper endorsement can persuade you one way or the other.

As we gravitate toward online news, we find ourselves without this editorial perspective on candidates on the major news aggregator sites. Who, for example, does Google News endorse?

Social bookmarking sites, on the other hand, actual do endorse candidates without actually trying to do so. By searching the sites, and sorting those searches by votes or popularity, you can get a sense of who members prefer.

For example, every link with significant popularity on Digg about John McCain that has an "opinion" is negative, every one about Hillary Clinton is also negative, and every one about Barack Obama is positive. The preference by the Digg community for Obama is very clear.

On MySpace, you can gauge candidate support by searching Google for mentions and counting them, as most mentions tend to be expressions of support. Searches for "John McCain" gets 56,800 Google links; "Hillary Clinton" 120,000; and "Barack Obama" 161,000.

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Facebook is harder to gauge via counting Google links, as many of the mentions on Facebook tend to be negative, rather than gestures of support. You can, however, simply count "supporters" posted on each candidate's Facebook page. John McCain's page has 93,901 supporters; Hillary Clinton's 136,766; and Barack Obama's 703,062.

In a nutshell, the major social sites endorse Obama. Yes, the methodology is deeply flawed. For example, skill on the part of a candidate's organization can "game" the sites, creating a perception of support that may not accurately reflect actual support. And the users of these sites don't necessarily reflect the larger American voting public.

Still, two interesting and yet unanswered questions are these: Are social sites' "endorsements" more predictive than the newspaper endorsements? Are social sites' "endorsements" perfectly predictive? Will it be possible in the future to know with certainty who wins nominations and other political contests by simply checking the social networks?

After all, the very definition of a Web 2.0 site is one that derives its value from the actions of users. Users are voters, and if these user-voters choose a candidate, shouldn't that candidate win democratic elections?

The New York Times picked Clinton back in January when the nomination was up for grabs. Now that it's late march, it's clear that Obama leads the race for the Democratic nomination in opposition to the Times' endorsement but in harmony with the collective "endorsement" of the Web 2.0.

If Obama shores up the Democratic nomination and goes on to win the presidency, political pundits will look back at the Web 2.0's clear "endorsement" and wonder if sites like Digg are the best early predictor of who wins elections.

Tags: Facebook, Google, search, MySpace, politics

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