#Cashtag: Could Twitter be an antidote to big-money politics?

Twitter unveils a new way to tweet cash to political candidates, challenging typical donation barriers. 

(Patrick Semansky/AP)
A woman uses her cell phone to take a photograph of President Barack Obama as he speaks at a fundraising reception in Baltimore, 2012.

Through partnership with the payments processor Square Inc., Twitter launched a feature Tuesday that will allow users to tweet their donations to political candidates.

After campaigns create a Square Cash account, they will receive a specific web handle known as a "cashtag." Whenever a supporter shares their candidate’s cashtag on Twitter, the link will trigger a donation button where a tweeted image would typically be appear. Once the user clicks on the donate box, they will be asked to enter their name and debit-card number. After the initial transaction is complete, the user’s data will be saved on Twitter for future donations.

The goal? To help candidates easily collect small donations.

“A person with less money to give is also less likely to know how to give a contribution … even if motivation is high, the person who is not asked may not know how to give: the cost of participating (in terms of the effort, time, or knowledge required) is higher for the self-starter than for a person who is solicited,” says Michael J. Malbin in his study of small donors for the Campaign Finance Institute.

With 316 million active monthly users and 500 million tweets sent per day, Twitter seems like the perfect way to lower the barrier to participation. 

Consider, too, that 79 percent of workers earning less than $30,000 a year are active on social networking sites, the highest percentage of any economic demographic. 

From Donald Trump to Sen. Bernie Sanders, many 2016 presidential candidates have already recognized the impact of small donations, defined as $200 or less by the Federal Election Commission.

As of June, 77 percent of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign had been financed by small donations. Republican campaigns by Ben Carson and Donald Trump have also benefited from small donations at 65 and 44 percent, respectively.

Although these candidates have already had small-donation success, everyone agrees that this new partnership could be a game-changer.

“There hasn’t been to this point a lot of success with an application that makes it possible for you to quickly and easily and simply make contributions without leaving the platform itself. That’s the key difference and why we’re so excited to test this,” said Matt Compton, digital director at the Democratic National Committee.

Until now, social media platforms that encourage donations, such as endorsed tweets or Facebook posts, simply redirect supporters to the donation page on the specific campaign website.

The key to monetary participation is keeping people on the social media sites for donation because “if you are taking them off the platform, you see your engagement rates really fall off,” adds Compton.

This service debuts just ahead of the next Republican presidential debate Wednesday. And the timing is not a coincidence, says Twitter.

“Any campaign knows that if during the debate, they take that Tweet that has the donate functionality on it, and promote it on twitter … that’s going to be the perfect storm. That’s where it comes full circle and where we think it will be incredibly compelling,” said Jenna Golden, Twitter’s head of political advertising sales. “We want people to have the opportunity to utilize this in the midst of key moments.”

People across demographics are already using Facebook and Twitter to participate in the political conversation and “when there is a national debate or a local event, they are participating in that event with their screen right there with them,” says Compton.

Twitter’s mission, "To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers," could be something all presidential candidates endorse. 

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