Here’s my original version of an essay on social media’s influence on politics that appeared, in a somewhat different form, in Politico Magazine earlier this month. I’ll be discussing the subject at a free event at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on October 8, during Boston’s HUBweek.
The 140-Character Candidate
Barack Obama killed it on social media this summer. On August 14, a Friday, he kicked off a steamy Washington weekend by releasing a pair of playlists, one for the nighttime, one for the day, through the White House’s new Spotify account. The presidential mixes were predictable but pleasant, a smooth fusion of dad rock and dad soul. In an accompanying blog post, one of the administration’s digital functionaries promised that more playlists were in the works, including “issue-specific” ones.
Two weeks later, on the evening of August 31, Obama turned himself into the country’s Instagrammer-in-Chief. While en route to Alaska to promote his climate agenda, the president took a photograph of a mountain range from a window on Air Force One and posted the shot on the popular picture-sharing network. “Hey everyone, it’s Barack,” the caption read. “I’ll be spending the next few days touring this beautiful state and meeting with Alaskans about what’s going on in their lives. Looking forward to sharing it with you.” The photo was liked by thousands.
Ever since the so-called Facebook election of 2008, Obama has been a pacesetter in using social media to connect with the public. But he has nothing on this year’s candidates. Back in June, the Hillary Clinton campaign issued its own official Spotify playlist, loaded with on-message tunes (“Brave,” “Fighters,” “Stronger,” “Believer”). Ted Cruz live-streams his appearances on Periscope. Marco Rubio broadcasts “Snapchat Stories” at stops along the trail. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham produce goofy YouTube videos. Even grumpy old Bernie Sanders has attracted nearly two million likers on Facebook, leading the New York Times to dub him “a king of social media.”
And then there’s Donald Trump. If Sanders is a king, Trump is a god. A natural-born troll, adept at sending out inflammatory bulletins at opportune moments, he’s the first candidate optimized for the Google News algorithm. In a typical tweet, issued like a cock’s crow at dawn one recent Monday, he described Clinton aide Huma Abedin as “a major security risk” and “the wife of perv sleazebag Anthony Wiener.” Exuberantly impolitic, such messages attract Trump a vast web audience — four million followers on Twitter alone — while giving reporters and pundits fresh bait to feed on. What Trump understands is that the best way to dominate the online discussion is not to inform but to provoke.
Trump’s glow may fade — online celebrity has a fast-burning wick — but his ability to control the agenda through the summer says a lot about how social media is changing the dynamics of political races. We’re learning that as the net shrinks to the size of a smartphone screen, the national conversation shrinks with it. The message, as always, has to fit the medium.
* * *
Twice before in the last hundred years a new medium has transformed elections. In the 1920s, radio disembodied candidates, reducing them to voices. It also made national campaigns much more intimate. Politicians, used to bellowing at fairgrounds and train depots, found themselves talking to families in their homes. The blustery rhetoric that stirred big, partisan crowds came off as shrill and off-putting when piped into a living room or a kitchen. Gathered around their wireless sets, the public wanted an avuncular statesman, not a rabble rouser. With Franklin Roosevelt, master of the soothing fireside chat, the new medium found its ideal messenger.
In the 1960s, television gave candidates their bodies back, at least in two dimensions. With its jumpy cuts and pitiless close-ups, TV placed a stress on sound bites, good teeth, and an easy manner. Image became everything, as the line between politician and celebrity blurred. John Kennedy was the first successful candidate of the TV era, but it was Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who perfected the form. Born actors, they managed to project a down-home demeanor while also seeming bigger than life. They were made for television.
Today, with the public looking to their smartphones for news and entertainment, we’re at the start of the third technological transformation of modern electioneering. The presidential campaign is becoming just another social-media stream, its swift and shallow current intertwining with all the other streams that flow through people’s devices. This shift is changing the way politicians communicate with voters, altering the tone and content of political speech. But it’s doing more than that. It’s changing what the country wants and expects from its would-be leaders. If radio and TV required candidates to be nouns — to present themselves as stable, coherent figures — social media pushes them to be verbs, engines of activity. Authority and esteem don’t accumulate on social media; they have to be earned anew at each moment. You’re only as relevant as your last tweet.
What’s important now is not so much image as personality. But, as the Trump phenomenon suggests, it’s a particular kind of personality that works best — one that’s big enough to grab the attention of the perpetually distracted but small enough to fit neatly into a thousand tiny media containers. It might best be described as a Snapchat personality. It bursts into focus at regular intervals without ever demanding steady concentration.
Social media favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered. It also prizes emotionalism over reason. The more visceral the message, the more quickly it circulates and the longer it holds the darting public eye. In something of a return to the pre-radio days, the fiery populist now seems more compelling, more worthy of attention, than the cool wonk. It’s the crusty Bernie and the caustic Donald that get hearted and hash-tagged, friended and followed. Is it any wonder that “Feel the Bern” has become the rallying cry of the Sanders campaign?
Emotional appeals can be good for politics. They can spur civic involvement, even among the disenfranchised and disenchanted. And they can galvanize public attention, focusing it on injustices and abuses of power. An immediate emotional connection can, at best, deepen into a sustained engagement with the political process. But there’s a dark side to social media’s emotionalism. Trump’s popularity took off only after he demonized Mexican immigrants, playing to the public’s frustrations and fears. That’s the demagogue’s oldest tactic, and it worked. The Trump campaign may have qualities of farce, but it also suggests that a Snapchat candidate, passionate yet hollow, could be a perfect vessel for a cult of personality.
* * *
Whenever a new medium upends the game, veteran politicians flounder. They go on playing by the old medium’s rules. The people who listened to the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate on their radios were convinced Nixon had won. But the far larger television audience saw Kennedy as the clear victor. Nixon’s mistake was to assume that he was still in the radio age. He believed that the audience would concentrate on what he said and wouldn’t care much about how he looked. Oblivious to the camera’s gaze, he had no idea that the sweat on his upper lip would drown out his words.
A similar inertia is hobbling the establishment candidates today. They continue to follow the conventions of TV elections. They assume that television will establish the campaign’s talking points, package the race as a series of tidy stories, and shape the way voters see the contestants. The candidates may have teams of digital tacticians tending to their online messaging, but most view social media as a complement to TV coverage, a means of reinforcing their messages and images, rather than as a driving force in the race.
That’s particularly true of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, the erstwhile shoo-ins. Both are playing it safe online, trying to burnish their images as reliable public servants while avoiding any misstep that might blow up into a TV controversy. Bush’s various social-media feeds come off as afterthoughts. They promote his appearances, offer kudos to his endorsers, and provide links to his merchandise store. What they rarely do is break news. Clinton’s postings are equally anodyne. Her Facebook feed is a mirror image of her Twitter feed, and both aim to give followers a warm-and-fuzzy feeling about the candidate. Clinton’s predicament is a painful one. She’s spent years filing the burrs off her personality, only to find that rough edges are in. The 2016 Hillary playlist, upbeat and bland, sounds anachronistic in a campaign that’s more punk than pop.
News organizations, too, tend to be slow to adapt to the arrival of a new medium. Television, with its diurnal news cycle, gave a theatrical rhythm to campaigns. Each day was an act in a broader drama that arced from conflict to crisis to resolution. Campaigns were “narratives.” They had “story lines.” Social media is different. Its fragmented messages and conversations offer little in the way of plot. Its literary style is stream-of-consciousness, more William Burroughs than William Thackeray. But reporters and pundits, stuck in the TV era, keep trying to fit the bits and pieces on Twitter and Facebook into a linear tale. As a result, today’s campaign reports often seem out of sync with the public’s reaction to events.
Think of what happened in July when Trump did the unthinkable and maligned John McCain’s military record. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said in an Iowa speech. “I like people who weren’t captured.” In any prior campaign, such a criticism of an American veteran who had been tortured as a prisoner of war would have constituted a major “gaffe.” It would have immediately triggered a narrative of sin, penance, and redemption. In this familiar plot, a trope of modern campaigns, the candidate is first pilloried, then required to make a heartfelt apology, and finally, after the sincerity of the apology is carefully weighed, granted absolution. At which point a new narrative begins.
That’s the way the news media played the Trump attack. In print and on TV, the putative gaffe received saturation coverage, with the aghast press dutifully reprimanding the wayward Donald. “Will Trump’s Smear of McCain Doom His Candidacy?” asked a Newsweek headline. But the narrative, to the media’s surprise, never advanced. Far from apologizing, Trump kept attacking. The tweets piled up, the public’s attention buzzed to newer things, and the drama died in its first act. With social media, we seem to have entered a post-narrative world of campaigning. And that greatly circumscribes the power of traditional media in stage-managing races. Rather than narrating stories, anchors are reduced to reading tweets.
* * *
The internet, we’ve been told, is a force for “democratization,” and what we’ve seen so far with the coverage of the 2016 race seems to prove the point. It’s worth asking, though, what kind of democracy is being promoted. Early digital enthusiasts assumed that the web, by freeing the masses from TV news producers and other media gatekeepers, would engender a deeper national conversation. We the people would take control of the discussion. We’d go online to read position papers, seek out diverse viewpoints, and engage in spirited policy debates. The body politic would get fit.
It was a pretty thought, but it reflected an idealized view both of human nature and of media. Even a decade ago, in the heady days of the blogosphere, there were signs that online media promoted a hyperactive mob mentality. People skimmed headlines and posts, seeking information that reinforced their biases and avoiding contrary perspectives. Information gathering was more tribalistic than pluralistic. As the authors of a 2009 study concluded, “blog authors tend to link to their ideological kindred and blog readers gravitate to blogs that reinforce their existing viewpoints.” The internet inspired “participation,” but the participants ended up in “cloistered cocoons of cognitive consonance.”
That probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. The net reinforced the polarizing effect that mass media, particularly talk radio and cable news, had been having for many years. What is a surprise is that social media, for all the participation it inspires among users, is turning out to be more encompassing and controlling, more totalizing, than earlier media ever was. The social networks operated by companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google don’t just regulate the messages we receive. They regulate our responses. They shape, through the design of their apps and their information-filtering regimes, the forms of our discourse.
When we go on Facebook, we see a cascade of messages determined by the company’s News Feed algorithm, and we’re provided with a set of prescribed ways to react to each message. We can click a Like button; we can share the message with our friends; we can add a brief comment. With the messages we see on Twitter, we’re given buttons for replying, retweeting, and favoriting, and any thought we express has to fit the service’s tight text limits. Google News gives us a series of headlines, emphasizing the latest stories to have received a cluster of coverage, and it provides a row of buttons for sharing the headlines through the most popular commercial platforms. All social networks impose these kinds of formal constraints, both on what we see and on how we respond. The restrictions have little to do with the public interest. They reflect the commercial interests of the companies operating the networks, as well as the protocols of software programming.
Because it simplifies and speeds up communications, the formulaic quality of social media is well suited to the banter that takes place among friends. Clicking a heart symbol may be the perfect way to judge the worth of an Instagrammed selfie. But when applied to political speech, the same constraints can be pernicious. Political discourse rarely benefits from templates and routines. It becomes most valuable when it involves careful deliberation, an attention to detail, and subtle and open-ended critical thought — the kinds of things that social media tends to frustrate rather than promote.
Over the next year, as the presidential campaign careens toward its conclusion, all of us — the public, the press, the candidates — will get an education in how national elections work in the age of social media. We may discover that the gates maintained by our new gatekeepers are narrower than ever.
Image: selfie with candidate, by Kim Kardashian, via Twitter.