Social media now connects us across the country and around the world in ways unimaginable even five years ago. During the recent British elections for example, Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley on the hit television show “Downton Abbey” posted the following on Twitter:
“1/3 of the electorate voted? Right, the other 2/3. I don't want to hear a PEEP out of you until the next election. In fact, go to your room.” Dan Stevens @thatdanstevens
Tweeters then carried on a spirited but polite conversation which included posters from the United States. One even wrote that 1/3 of the population voting was better than in Chicago.
In contrast was the recent firestorm over the criticism of the Obama campaign’s attack on Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital years by Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, on “Meet the Press.” A social and mainstream media free-for-all erupted. Booker finally resorted to his own Twitter site to try to quell the conflagration, posting:
"Sorry I make u sick. And sorry I made a mistake. I'm sorry that 15 seconds on MTP erodes my 20 yrs of work in inner cities around our nation." Cory Booker (@CoryBooker).
In 2012, a rising British star can remind Americans about the importance of voting with a simple click. Many other clicks in a different conversation, however, can also damage the long-term reputation of an up and coming American politician.
There is no question that social media and its ability to reach millions, led by Facebook and Twitter, will play a fundamental role in this year’s elections. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns are already using it extensively to reach voters, including in some non-traditional ways. Obama’s Facebook page recently featured an “Evening with Two Presidents," which gave posters a chance to meet President Obama and former President Clinton while encouraging them to make a fundraising contribution to the campaign. Romney’s page features a contest to design a “Believe in America” t-shirt.
This enormous connection also brings enormous consequences. Social media amplifies and intensifies everything, good or bad, also in a way not imaginable five years ago. Every single word said by a politician, such as Booker’s comments about Bain Capital, can now be discussed by 15 people on Facebook, who then pass their comments on to 200 people, who then in turn pass their comments on to another 200 people and so on.
This multitude of posts does not guarantee, however, that they will result in a quality conversation. It’s inevitable that something will get lost in translation during what can become a giant game of internet telephone. Social media amplification can also lead to extensive rumor-mongering and disinformation, such as the ongoing “Birther” comments about Obama’s birthplace.
This amplification could have a sobering effect on this year’s election. Unable to control the speed, depth and even hateful comments posted on social media, Obama and Romney’s strategists might very well run campaigns built around attempting to stay strictly on message, leaving no room for spontaneity. This is particularly true for Romney, whose gaffes were heavy duty fodder for social media sites during the Republican Presidential primaries.
The danger is that, just at the time Americans most need it, Obama and Romney will not engage in a thoughtful and open debate about the significant issues currently facing the United States, afraid that anything they say that is “off message” will get so amplified and so taken out of context that there is no gain in saying anything at all. A clear sign of just exactly how much Obama and Romney will want to stay on message will be in how many news conferences they engage in during the fall campaign, other than the ones Obama must do as president of the United States. The less interaction with the press, the less likely one will stray off message and suffer the same fate as Cory Booker.
This will make the fall presidential debates even more important. The debates will force Obama and Romney off script, resulting in their having to think on their feet in front of millions of Americans. These debates will also compel them to engage in a real conversation about their competing visions of America and its future, a conversation that is sorely needed in 2012.
When all the votes are counted this November, there is no doubt that social media will have played a critically important role in the outcome of the election. The question remains as to whether it was a good role or a bad one. The two campaigns can now reach millions of followers and donors in seconds. People who never cared about politics can join in the virtual conversation, and may even sign up to volunteer for a campaign. In those same seconds, however, candidates can also find a simple statement has become so amplified and distorted that it has lost all its original meaning in the eyes of the public.
New technology transforms the American political system every generation. People are still arguing over whether the advent of television turned presidential elections into a battle of images rather than a battle of ideas. The debate over social media has just begun
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