In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, a political opinion columnist wrote that lines like “binders full of women” which spread virally on platforms like Twitter are precisely what’s wrong with politics. She doesn’t go into a lot of detail except to say that the discourse is dumbed down so that “virtual audiences” can provide commentary in real time, treating politics like a reality show. She points out that this is the first “social media election,” so clearly she has been reading other non-sequiturs about this election. But this is the first time I’ve seen social media blamed for political messaging.
Let me tell you why I disagree with this assertion. To blame social media for vapid political discourse is a modern-day version of Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake.” It’s not that the body politic enjoys consuming empty calories, it’s simply that there’s not a lot else to consume.
Dispelling the social media myth
Let’s get one point immediately clear: social media isn’t a election game changer. If you read the outstanding FiveThirtyEight blog, you see that there isn’t corresponding movement in the polls when “big bird” and “binders fulls of women” are traversing Twitter. The mythology of social media as a driver or even as a harbinger of political sentiment is inaccurate.
Twitter recently released a study touting its effectiveness for driving political donations. The only problem with the study is that it ignores any other marketing input and completely glosses over the fact that the people who are contributing to these campaigns are either targeted or opt-in to Twitter messages, indicating that they would have donated with or without Twitter.
Even more damning than Twitter’s donation without causation claims was a study by two professors who targeted a local audience with 30 impressions of a local candidate through Facebook, and found that very few of them even knew who he was when polled at the end of the time period.
So, the argument that politicians are clamoring to recite soundbites that resonate with social media users implies that these politicians are naive enough to think that social media is an important marketing tactic for them. Their widespread use of the platforms probably is more defensive than offensive… but to be generous I’ll simply say that there is no established correlation between social engagement metrics and voter influence that I’ve seen.
Does the past have any bearing on the present?
The implicit assertion of the Post piece is that the political discourse was better before social media. And that’s completely false. Remember these zingers from previous campaigns?
“There you go again”
”I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience”
“You are no Jack Kennedy“
“Say it ain’t so, Joe”
If these were uttered today, it’s conceivable that all of these would morph into hashtags. But they weren’t. They are from 1979, 1983, 1991 and 2007.
Point being, politicians didn’t start rattling off condescending, irrelevant zingers after Twitter came to prominence. There is a long history of them. Politicians today are simply repeating the same lessons from previous elections. If this says something about the dumbing down of politics or a politician’s disdain for the electorate, it predates social media by decades.
Two of those candidates (Lloyd Bentsen and Sarah Palin) were not elected into office, indicating that this distillation of politics into high snark isn’t so important (social media notwithstanding).
What to talk about?
Candidates talked about improving education in their debates, with one of them uttering the exasperating declaration “I like teachers.” The other one trying to point out all of the other ways that his opponent doesn’t like teachers. Nevermind that Geoffrey Canada has a 98% college acceptance rate in his inner-city charter schools. What is he doing differently? A large part of his success is probably due to resourcing his schools, smaller class size, changing the traditional school day, implementing the most effective teaching methods and extracurricular enhancement. But a competition for who likes teachers more is a worthwhile conversation if you need to pass time in a debate.
Candidates debated their viewpoint on abortion, an issue that they have very little power to influence (besides appointing supreme court justices). They went on to agree about the necessity of drone strikes despite studies that suggest these tend to kill a high percentage of civilians. They gloss over that factual point like it’s no big deal. They also advocated for sanctions in a very sanctimonious way, when the reality of these sanctions is that they degrade the quality of life for the general population to persuade their government to act (this was established clearly with sanctions in Iraq). The dire human consequences to policies like this are conveniently not discussed. Three of the four national candidates consider themselves pro-”life,” but nevermind the fact that their advocacy for life has geographic, socioeconomic and age limits.
About $2 billion dollars will have been spent on the Presidential election this year once it is (thankfully) over. Assuming about $1 billion for each campaign, I have never heard about the concessions due political donors when these candidates get into office. But one presumes that an aggregate $1 billion is not in any way philanthropic. One further assumes that the platitudes about a “middle class” that each candidate spouts are empty, since middle income voters don’t contribute anywhere near the amount that big donors do.
And when a journalist like Martha Raddatz (and to a lesser extent Candy Crowley) had the audacity to follow-up on issues well within the narrow scope of what the politicians want to talk about, they were vilified for interfering with the candidates talking points and zingers. Better to have a wet noodle moderator like Jim Lehrer or Bob Schieffer ask questions and let the candidates zing away.
That’s the political discourse that is going on right now, and it is completely irrelevant to social media. And this landscape (with the exception of the scale of political donations) is nothing new or different.
Is it hypocritical to blame social media for this?
So how is it that despite a rich history of sound bites, smoke and mirrors, that the political discourse is blamed on social media? It’s hypocritical to use an oversimplified argument to lament the oversimplification of political talking points.
Politics probably will never change. In fact I was reading through some political posts today: some Romney advocates are expressing their outrage in Obama’s dismissal of bayonets, while Obama supporters are outraged about Mitt Romney’s “Romnesia,” an imaginary condition where he forgets his positions on issues. Each contributor added to the discussion with the passion of a sport enthusiast, discussing these insignificant, ancillary issues as if they were issues that would affect them in their everyday lives.
If you dislike the current political discourse, don’t blame social media. Social media doesn’t create trite, opaque topics. They simply enable people to see the conversations around them. By and large, social media is agnostic. It treats the political campaigns no differently than the Real Housewives. And as evidenced by the gregarious, empty promises and ambivalence to issues that are truly informing about governance - these campaigns probably don’t deserve any better.