By Dan Jeffers
This article takes a look at the impact social media is having on politics. The first section gives an overview of the changes between the 2008 and the 2012 elections. Both elections used and were affected by social media, but the difference between them reflects the ways in which social media has changed society. The second section takes a closer look at a more recent issue: the concept of using a trillion dollar coin or two to solve the debt ceiling crisis, and how this concept rose through social media into mainstream discussion.
Recent Elections: The First Meme President
There is no doubt that social media had a huge impact on the recent elections. In 2008, there were about 1.5 million election-related tweets. In 2012, there were 31 million. The population of people using social media has changed since that time as well. In 2008, much of social media was dominated by younger demographics. Now it reflects the population as a whole. More than half this population engaged in some sort of election-related social media behavior. [Reported by panelists from Twitter and Pew]
But it’s not enough to look at these changes and talk about social media as just a new platform. Social media is not a change in technology, it is a change in how people communicate. This change has to be reflected in how candidates behave, not just online but everywhere.
The Failed Etch-a-Sketch
When Romney’s campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN that Romney could hit a reset button between the primary and the general election “kind of like an Etch-a-Sketch,” he wasn’t saying anything all that novel. Appealing to a motivated base during a primary, then moving towards the center in a general election is the way things have been done. Reagan famously engaged the religious right during his primaries, recruiting foot soldiers that worked tirelessly for him even though he moved towards the middle when he hit the national stage.
Romney went far to prove his conservative credentials during the primary, probably something he had to do to win the nomination. But social media remembers.
Social media is sometimes characterized as transient and superficial. But there are many deep places in social media, small often tenuous networks that rise up and relate to each other over a specific event or topic. These groups pass information back and forth, reinforce beliefs, and keep anger alive long after most people would let it go. Everything Romney said, all the contacts he made with the more right wing elements, all the things they did became part of the ongoing cataloging and recycling activity of these smaller communities that formed over Facebook and Twitter. When the election moved back into the public eye, these people were able to flood the field with their collective product. Perhaps nobody changed their opinion, but people stayed mad and were far more likely to go out and vote.
These ad hoc groups are often very thinly connected, but they form quickly and are not going away. They will exist on both sides of any debate, and in the future, candidates on any side can assume that the magic etch-a-sketch between primary and general is broken. Some part of social media remembers. If there is any systematic advantage, it would probably go to incumbents.
Bill Clinton may be the most popular ex-president, but if social media had been around when he first ran for president, there’s no way he would have been elected. The various scandals hovering over him at the time of the election in 1992 included “Troopergate,” Paula Jones, and the Whitewater affair. Many of these finally made it into the public conscience after the election in 1993. However, as the Trayvon Martin case made clear, social media can make something into a story long before the mainstream media takes interest.
But it 1992 it was possible, as James Carville put it, to contain “bimbo eruptions.”
Romney never had the big scandals, but the stories about bullying a man in college, who later turned out to be gay, and the self-revealed story about strapping the family dog to the roof were constantly passed back and forth across social networks. More to the point, candidates who made off-handedly offensive comments about rape, disability, or insulted veterans paid for those comments. Not only were the comments kept fresh, they were spread nationally in ways that sparked contributions from all over to their opponents.
This new tendency of mud to stick on a candidate more quickly, and for far longer will also persist. Managing negative stories that are spreading via social media cannot be done with the old methods that kept things out of the mainstream press for as long as possible.
The First Meme President
Aside from specific methods and tactics, there is one way that Obama has been successful in the world of social media that seems to consistently work in his favor. Roosevelt was the first president to reach out through the radio, and the television cameras loved Kennedy. Internet memes may be as important as either of those mediums, and memes love Obama. For more on that topic, check out this article from the Mercury News.
From Bo Gritz to Paul Krugman: The Trillion Dollar Coin Idea
The battles over the budget over the last year and half have risked government shutdown, raised the specter of a “fiscal cliff” and are currently centered around whether Congress will raise the debt ceiling. Much of this has happened before—Democrats are currently circulating quotes from Ronald Reagan battling Congress over the same issue in September 1987. One impact social media has had this time around is introducing a somewhat fringe idea into mainstream discussion in a way that may help clarify the real issue.
In 1992 Bo Gritz, a flamboyant POW-MIA activist and survivalist guru, ran for President as the Populist Party candidate. One of his ideas was to pay off the national debt by telling the Treasury to mint a coin to cover it.In a speech to hundreds of supporters, he explained:
“As President of the United States, I am going to have on the very first day in office, a pot metal coin, and it is going to be struck, and it will say four trillion dollars, and it will say, “Debt of the United States Paid in Full,” and it will also say, “In God We Trust.”
In the election, Bo Gritz received little attention and got 0.14% of the vote. His idea was not widely reported. When the idea came up during the current crisis, many articles reported that it had first occurred in an episode of the Simpsons called “The Trouble with Trillions” which aired in 1998. In the Simpsons episode, Harry Truman printed a one trillion dollar bill to help reconstruct Europe. However, Montgomery Burns was tasked with delivering the bill, and it never arrived.
Blogs and the Platinum Loophole
The current version of the idea, which grabbed the imagination of mainstream media, started as a comment on an economics blog. The author is a Georgia lawyer who uses the name “Beowulf” to comment on this and other blogs. The idea rose through economics blogs, and was picked up by journalistic bloggers on the Business Insider and Bloomberg site.
The online debate among bloggers helped flesh the idea out and give it a certain credibility. Notably, Jack Balkin, the Knight Professor at Yale Law School, and Greg Ip, the economics blogger for The Economist added legal and economic elements that could make the concept feasible. Many other bloggers have chimed in, arguing over whether the concept is inflationary, legal, or politically savvy. The discussion reached the point that Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist, chastised daily show host Jon Stewart for not taking it seriously.
Ultimately, even if the idea is discarded, as seems likely, it brought a lot more attention to the actual nature and effect of the debt ceiling. The public online debate over the concept was only possible because of the interconnected world of blogs and comments. I believe that this process shows something that is evolving in our society—a vastly improved ability to flesh out concepts and make them accessible to everyone.