Monday, October 12, 2009

Politics: Where's the New Media?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A year ago, the mainstream media stood in awe of how then-Senator Barack Obama was using social media on the Internet to move his presidential campaign forward. Even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's magazine, Technology Review, came out with a feature article explaining how Obama's campaign had set up its infrastructure and how its use of social media had been different than that of his rivals. That article speculated how "MyBO," Obama's analog of MySpace, and other resources might be used if he won the presidency to create a new level of citizen engagement in presidential initiatives. Obama may have become the 44th president of the United States, but eight months into his presidency there is no sign of any effective use of social media, and arguably right-wing opposition has been much more effective in its use of modern technology.

What happened? There's no surprise in the reality that governing is different--and much harder--than campaigning. A key aspect of Obama's effective use of social media was calling people to action--tweets and other text messages from the campaign told their supporters what to do to help support Obama. When it was time to unite the party after Hillary Clinton suspended the campaign, word went out to invite Clinton supporters to unity parties. When it was time to counteract specific Republican disinformation, accurate information was sent out with instructions in how to spread it. People are willing to take such actions in a time-limited campaign, but not so willing to do so in their daily lives. So, it was clear that less advantage could be taken of the social networks built by the campaign during the administration--but using it less often is different than barely using it at all, which is what has seemed to happen. Practically the only outward change over previous administrations has been that the weekly radio address has appeared on YouTube.

The biggest factor seems to have been the strategy taken by the administration for passing legislation. Most prominently on the issue of health care, but really for every legislative initiative except some of the early, emergency economic measures, the Obama administration has made the decision to let legislators hash out the details of the legislation into a form that could actually pass Congress. Where many presidents would have proposed legislation and then let Congress change it, Obama has acquiesced to the reality that most details are hashed out by Congress anyway and let them do it from the start under the apparent idea that it would cost the President less political capital and that it would make the legislation more likely to pass. This may yet prove to be an effective legislative strategy (or perhaps a failure), but in taking the initiative away from the administration, the onus for building support for legislative specifics is also taken away, and thus there is no reason to exercise the citizen's network utilizing social media.

However, one of the most effective things about the Obama campaign's social media was that there was centralized messaging emanating from the strategists (through text messages and the web site), but the implementation of citizen action was largely taken care of by the people out in the field deciding on their own how to take the supportive actions. The campaign would say to contact five friends and inform them about Obama's economic plan, say, but it wouldn't specify how to contact them or exactly what to say. Without the centralized messaging, the network isn't empowered to do anything. Without specific legislative initiatives, there is no centralized messaging.

Most dramatically in the health care debate, this has left the door wide open for opponents to activate their own networks, whether social media-based or very old-fashioned. When the opposition started gaining traction with their points, Obama's network was left to sit on its hands with no message to spread in response. The result has been that the Obama "magic" has been seemingly completely absent.

There seem to be two obvious ways for the Democrats to re-capture the buzz of the campaign. If all the initiative is to be left to Congress, then the Congressional leadership needs to develop its own social media networks to help it pressure its own members and take advantage of the activism and concern that does exist in the country, even if it will be less intense than during a quadrennial campaign. Considering that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi can't seem to agree on anything, this doesn't seem to be a realistic possibility.

The other option is for the President to get back involved in the process directly, start fighting for specifics in the legislation, and activate his network to pressure Congress to back up his positions. Arguably, the President may have been waiting for the right moment when the legislation was well enough formed to proceed with strategy. The trade-off is that every day of waiting allows the opposition to keep spreading its message.

One big story in the wake of Obama's election was whether or not he could keep his BlackBerry mobile device. The Secret Service did not find it secure enough, but Obama wanted it to avoid being in a media bubble. In the end, a compromise was reached in which the President was able to use a specially-secured mobile device, but the upshot seemed to be that something had been lost in the battle and the modifications. If the President does not want that story to become symbolic of his use of social media, he needs to start activating social networks before his legislative initiatives suffer any more than they already have from the networks' absence.

No comments: