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Hashtag homework: Students study social side of election

AP, Getty

The social networking of president Obama (l.) and presumed GOP candidate Mitt Romney will be studied in a new college course

In this college classroom, smart phones, iPads and other electronic devices often considered distractions by professors are welcome. The instructor here actually encourages students to tweet, blog and post to Facebook during his lectures.

In fact, it’s a requirement.

#ElectionClass, Social Media and the 2012 Election, is a new course at Syracuse University that will examine the impact of social media on presidential campaigns as the electoral process unfolds in real time.

Students will get to create and run mock campaigns alongside the real ones. That means as rhetoric over the economy, abortion rights and immigration escalates between the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney, they almost certainly will do the same in the virtual battle being waged in the parallel universe of #ElectionClass.

“The course is not about politics or, really, the issues. It’s about the tactics and the technologies and the possibilities of social media,” said Anthony Rotolo, the professor teaching the weekly course that begins Aug. 29.

The first half of the three-hour class will feature a more traditional format, with students discussing and tracking current events through social media. They also will measure the effectiveness of the social media platforms being leveraged by campaigns to respond to crisis, capitalize on victories and mobilize supporters.

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Rotolo called it a challenge to plan a curriculum around topics that have yet to be created or that might surface just minutes before a class meets.

“We’re designing the class so that we can be flexible because on any given day during the semester, President Obama or Mitt Romney may do or say something that could shape the tone of the election that week, or the next month or perhaps the whole election,” he said. “We have to be ready to look at the social media impact of a gaffe that may shape the entire season.”

Stephen Sartori / Stephen Sartori

Students at Syracuse University (here, in the school's social media lab) are going to follow the 2012 election in real time, in a course called #ElectionClass.

The second half of each class will focus on a mock campaign to elect a president of “Amercia,” which is how Romney’s campaign misspelled the country’s name when it released its new mobile app. (The typo, “A Better Amercia,” was widely ridiculed and parodied on Twitter, of course.)

Students will be divided randomly into various campaign teams and assigned a political party, regardless of personal views. They also will receive regional and philosophical characteristics — a Tea Party candidate from North Carolina, for example. Teams will then determine roles for each member, including presidential candidate, campaign manager, social media director or web producer.

The class will eventually narrow the field of the “primary candidates” to two individuals as students evaluate mock debates, ads and each campaign’s use of social media efforts, websites, memes and other online tools and tactics. One week, an assignment may hinge on a YouTube video, while another week centers on a specific political ad or blog post. Everything will be posted on ElectionClass.com, which will go up once the course starts.

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“You’ll see a lot of creativity and how students are impacted by the real political world because they’ll be emulating what they see,” Rotolo said. “But because it’s also their own work at stake, they’ll take a personal interest in performance metrics, so it will hit home as a real learning experience.”

Slightly more than 100 students have signed up for Rotolo’s 500-level undergraduate class. They will be joined frequently by about 30 students from a graduate-level section for public administration candidates taught by Ines Mergel, a professor with Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Mergel’s students focus on how the government uses numerous channels to control the flow of information to and from the public.

Mergel pointed out that after the 2008 presidential campaign, hundreds of Obama campaign social media directors suddenly found themselves in government jobs with very different goals and audiences, but with the same set of innovative tools.

“They were no longer working for one candidate, working around-the-clock to get him elected. It was a very different mission,” she said. Instead of reaching out to undecided voters, they suddenly found themselves trying to appeal to specific audiences, like environmentalists working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Ideally, #ElectionClass will provide tactics that students can apply to real world experience in any field.

“We’re not teaching students how presidential campaigns are run, or what the top political issues are,” Mergel said. “We’re trying to help them understand, what if they’re in the situation where a mayor walks into their office and says, ‘Let’s do the social media thing.’ How do you do that? What if you’re a non-profit trying to get microloans or more donations? What can they learn from the campaigns that can be used in the corporate or nonprofit world or the world of public diplomacy?”

Syracuse sophomore Hailey Temple doesn’t consider herself a heavy follower of politics but thinks #ElectionClass will help her bone up on topical issues.

“Social media strategy is still something pretty new, and I think it’s really important to learn,” she said. “As a public relations major, I don’t plan to go into politics but I think this is material that will carry over into how I might one day market a product or company.”

Temple, who is double majoring in information management, said she hopes to eventually work in the entertainment business and has already landed an internship for next summer in the industry.

“This class will be a great resource for me when I go to work with them,” she said.

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