Has a Tweet or Facebook post ever persuaded anyone to change how they vote for president?
That's a tough question to answer, even for the top political and technical experts in social media and politics – and something of a billion-dollar question in national politics.
"It's something that may not truly be known for a few more election cycles," said Adam Sharp, the senior manager of government, news and social innovation at Twitter, speaking in Tampa along with Mitt Romney campaign's digital strategist, Zach Moffat, and the top political experts at Google Inc., and Facebook Inc.
Still, he said there are some very compelling signs that social media is making a huge impact on the overall political conversation – with interesting comparisons to traditional polls like those conducted by Gallup.
The raid that successfully killed Osama bin Laden was the most tweeted event ever, Sharp said, yet two months later, when Gallup asked people about the most important topics, the resounding answer was the economy.
"People don't come back in the coffee shop every day and tweet again that bin Laden was killed," Sharp said, and when people are more reflective, they assess the most important things to them over time.
The convention in Tampa will be a social media event like no other, Sharp said, because nearly every delegate will have a mobile phone and will be taking photos and video to send back home to friends who will collectively see a view of the campaign on TV, in print, on the radio, and with a vibrant, personal view from friends on the convention floor.
Moffat, with the Romney campaign, said there's naturally a cadre of hard-core believers who are active in social media who can create an "echo chamber," but there are other victories to be had. "Perhaps something you learn through social media changes your mind a bit, but within your own voting beliefs – not necessarily going all the way to the other side."
More importantly, social media campaigns are a huge part of what Moffat called a "holistic" campaign, with the same message going out through television, radio, print, speeches, events and social media.
President Barack Obama may have 18 million followers on Twitter, compared to 921,000 with Romney, but Moffat said what's far more important is how involved followers are to seek out information, repost on Facebook or otherwise engage with the campaign. He claims the Romney camp has a 30 percent plus engagement rate, with re-tweets, Facebook posts and other social media victories.
"No matter how many people are following you on Twitter or Facebook, if they're not engaging in the campaign," Moffat asked, "what do you have?"