“Information is power, not money or education.” - Dick Gregory
Control of the production and dissemination of information is the cornerstone of every successful, modern, mass political movement. As far back as the invention of the printing press, information processing, including especially its mass distribution, has been a paramount concern of both the power elites and those who would displace them. Quantum leaps in information processing and control were signaled by, in quick succession, the advent of the telegraph, then the phonograph, radio, television, sound and video recording, and the Internet.
Social Media: As still prepubescent children of the Internet, “social media” present another hopeful yet frightening means of not just generation and transmission of data but completely new, more direct --“up close and personal” – ways and means of communicating, interacting with both individuals and masses of human beings.
If politics is about controlling the “social” aspects of people's means and methods of making a living, then from their inception, “social media” are at once and inherently both “political” and "economic." Social media are overturning the “old” political media formats – buttons, posters, pamphlets, newsletters, newspapers, books, magazines, radio, phone banks, direct mail, and even television itself – as the new (or at least latest) means by which the political is now effectuated....empowered. These traditional methods, though now seen as crude, even primitive, still operate, of course, but their roles are inexorably diminishing, giving over more and more political space to the new dispensation being ushered in by all social media.
This means political actors have no choice but to come to terms with Facebook (despite its current problems), Twitter, email, instant messaging, and any and all other emerging pathways and portals to getting one's message across to supporters and would-be supporters.
Politics/Political: There are as many and varied definitions, “schools of thought,” and descriptions of the “political” as there are political thinkers and philosophers. Marx (yes, that Marx) reduced both “politics” and the “social” to reflections or representations of the economic interests of the wielders of “power.” Similarly,(arguably the father of modern “sociology”) famously informed us that power itself is a mere matter of who controls the levers (social control agents and instruments) of physical coercion; and that therefore political power is ultimately based upon the “legitimate” or “authoritative” control and use of sheer physical force. For my money, taken together, these two thinkers correctly identify the essence of politics and the political: Power – either economic or physical -- or both.
Obama's Paradigm Shift: Did you feel it? President Obama’s 2008 campaign shifted the entire political landscape by setting a different, new and higher standard for the whole process of reaching potential voters – a standard which must at least be met by certainly any national (and most state and local) political office seekers. Beginning as early as 2007 and before the Democratic Party Primary Elections, Obama and his supporters put to work the social media and their virtually infinite capacities to create overlapping, vertical and horizontal, saturating “social networks.” Team Obama created an at first under the radar “movement” which exponentially ramped up fledgling supportive local organizations, raised prodigious sums of money, provided rapid and pointed responses to “Swift Boat”-like tactics, all while registering millions of new voters.
That Was Then....This Is Now: After Obama's history-making election to the presidency, new websites harvesting the golden databases created during the campaign sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain. As a result, a new and far-reaching ability to connect directly with the “masses” has obtained. Politicians may now bypass entirely special interest groups, lobbyists, the traditional news outlets and networks and take their unfiltered case to anybody with internet access. Now, it is this online access that drives offline behavior. Folks are motivated and, more importantly, can motivate others to join the cause, to give the money, to forward the message with just a few strokes on a keyboard and a couple of clicks with a “mouse.”
This current presidential election campaign is sharpening the focus and role of social media as the platform upon which power politics are being played. This does not mean, however, that social media are simply passive players in a political power game, who simply watch or monitor web or blog traffic and events. Quite the contrary. The medium itself, in a very real sense, has become an active player and participant. Social media's degree of activity, participation, and effectiveness depend on the skill of the human users, the specific medium being utilized, and precisely what particular message or communique is being conveyed. Obviously improper or inappropriate use of these new tools can and do cause irreparable damage to political ideologies, philosophies, and careers.
Alas, social media have come of age. And, just as with any young adult who leaves home for the first time to make her way independently in the wider world, the cutting of the cord, the leaving, is fraught with fear, angst and danger, but also faith, hope and wondrous possibility.
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