Social media and the presidential elections

(Brendan Smialowski / European Pressphoto Agency; and Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel)

On Tuesday I made my way to a glass office building near Metro Center, which hosted a discussion by four youthful journalists on “Politics and Technology.”  Despite their employment in a doomed profession, the panelists were knowledgeable, articulate, and intelligent to a fault, and made honest attempts to wrestle with the implications of social media for their work.  (The magnetic pull of journalism for the young might be explained by a long string of Hollywood productions, going back to All the President’s Men, in which grizzled reporters play the detective roles once reserved for Humphrey Bogart.)  Being Washington journalists, they also talked about politics.

Those interested in the Twitter stream emanating from the proceedings can link to the #SMWpolitics hashtag.  Here, I intend to offer my own impressions, and reflect on the tangled subject of mass media, new media, and politics.

People in the news business are scrambling to keep up with the new means of communication.  This is entirely to their credit, and in my experience places them ahead of their counterparts in, say, State Department or CIA.  The panelists were deep into Facebook and Twitter (Google+ still seems up in the air).  They have vast numbers of followers and friends, and obtain much of their information through social media.  For example, they follow the digital doings of congressmen – from the Anthony Wiener bizarre to the more usual staff-produced pap.

They are young and handy with these tools of communication.  Yet a question clearly gnawed at them:  what’s my job?  Is it to grow vast numbers of followers in the mode of Justin Bieber?  To become a shepherd to this flock, leading it to the home website – Huffington Post, Politico, ABC News?  To sit in on President Obama’s Google+ “circle” as one of many thousands?  To report on new media – on politics – on new media’s effect on politics?

The question is seldom articulated.  It’s probably taboo to say it out loud.  Instead, the anxiety emerges in sentences beginning with “Our job is to [fill in the blank].”  The journalist’s job, for example, is to educate.  That was said at the panel.  Educate whom, about what?  Well, the masses, about the possibility of bullshit in online sources.  But the masses might well know this already – and it isn’t at all clear that, if they don’t, they will turn to journalists for education.  Or the journalist’s job is to expose.  Politicians, we were told, are not identical to their canned social media effusions – most have staffers posting in their names.  President Obama, for one, confessed that he wasn’t tweeting his own tweets.

Apparently, only journalists are privy to this hidden knowledge.

This last attempt at justification came in response to the question:  if politicians and the public can talk directly on Twitter and Facebook, who needs the news media?  A good question, I thought.  A long-term dilemma.  At present, journalists benefit from the dinosaurian character of the political actors on the scene.  The people on the panel exuded scorn for the objects of their coverage, and rightfully so.  In the matter of information and communication, our politicians are amazingly unevolved.  They hear “internet” and conjure a series of tubes, and they are terrified of what the public might be up to in those dark warrens.

This won’t always be so.  A new generation of office-holders will grasp the power of digital media to forge communities – to speak directly to, and hear directly from, all interested constituents.  At that moment, the political influence of the news media will be fatally reduced.

I first heard the ugly word disintermediate in the late Nineties.  The context was the news business itself, particularly newspapers, which bundled together all kinds of odds and ends then sold them in a near-monopoly market.  Once web content broke the monopoly, people went straight to the sources, ignoring the middlemen.  They disintermediated.

Disintermediation, which destroyed the music business a decade ago and today is killing off the news business, will soon begin to torment our politics.

The media always owned the microphones.  They had, and still have, a loud public voice, and don’t need social media to communicate.  The same is true of politicians.  They gave their speeches, and the public listened.  To most of them social media is an unnatural act, a two-way microphone – a problem.  But to the public, social media means the end of passivity and silence.

A vast political frontier has been opened by the digital revolution.  In the Middle East, a rebellious public has overthrown dictators from this space, but in our country, with its relatively benign institutions, it lies so far unexploited, practically untouched.  If such disparate political eruptions as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street represent the public mood, however, we may soon see an assault on the temples of authority conducted by networked insurgents who can communicate circles around the dinosaurs of the political class.  This would be transformation on a radical scale:  the Fifth Wave, sweeping away many of our standing political arrangements.

It could happen as early as the November elections.  President Obama was swept into office by an insurgency, but today he embodies the establishment.  He sits like pharaoh at the top of the pyramid.  For much of the public, he is Washington, and neither his actions in office nor those of his staff convey much of a sense that they understand the nature of this alienation.  The brilliant deployment of social media by the Obama team in 2008 seems, in three short years, to have become a lost art.  The president is the president:  Democrats up in arms against the government will not mistake him for a fellow rebel.

The Republicans’ situation is, if anything, worse.  Mitt Romney personifies the establishment.  He’s burdened with attributes which infuriate the insurgent wing of his party:  great wealth, governorship in a blue state, responsibility for a complicated health care law.  Unlike candidate Barack Obama in 2008, Romney has never given any indication of having a clue about social media.  He’s a conventional old-fashioned candidate, seeking election by conventional well-established means.

The 2012 presidential contest will be a great thudding battle of dinosaurs.  A space has thus opened up for something:  probably not another candidate, I imagine, but a surprise attack by a disgruntled public, the spread of a furious disruptive message, a nimble movement against.  That’s what social media does best.

Because elections, like all human events, are tossed about by random factors, there’s no predicting whether such a revolt of the public will in fact occur.  However, the possibility will add some suspense, and much analytic interest, to the dull rituals of the campaign.

The young journalists on the panel didn’t see any of this, of course.  There was a lot they didn’t see.  Like the politicians they cover, journalists perch atop an institutional pyramid, and are blind to everything non-pyramidal.  As a member of the audience, while watching a Twitter stream projected on a screen behind the panelists, I heard any number of sharp assessments of how social media might influence established political players and processes.  I heard nothing about the Fifth Wave:  how the new means of communication, so inherently contrarian and disruptive, might propel a new and eccentric class of political actors, and seek to shatter, for good or evil, the current rules of the political game.

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