Friday, May 22, 2015

Will social media ever be the primary driver in electing a president?

By Richard Barry

A piece by Ryan Cooper in The Week raises an interesting, if overstated, point that 2016 could be the first election in which the political press is sidelined. He argues that politicians are becoming so adept at using social media that they can effectively get their messages out unaided by the reporters who typically follow them around, literally and metaphorically.

He adds that "no journalist has the kind of media celebrity and cultural credibility (as Tim Russert used to have) that once made interviews mandatory for aspiring presidents." 

On this view, political stars can be neither made nor broken by a handful of powerful people. 

One sign, he writes, that politicians are starting to understand this is that Hillary Clinton is in no hurry to engage reporters as a way to sell herself to the voting public, hence the complaint that she hasn't taken many direct questions. 

Mr. Cooper's argument leads him to the conclusion that campaign reporters do little good because candidates are disinclined to answer tough questions, and reporters are, in any case, more interested in "inane questions about process, the horse race, or gaffes." 

In what he calls the "gaffe-centric media coverage . . . the slightest misstep or embarrassing picture can lead to a days-long Internet firestorm."

Following the logic of the argument, in the days when engaging political reporters was an absolutely necessary way for a candidate to push his or her message and raise their profile, there was always a risk that something untoward would be said or done by the candidate and that the reporter or reporters in the scrum or at the event or somewhere on the campaign trail would get their gotcha moment.

But if candidates can communicate directly with voters through Twitter, Facebook, websites, web ads, etc., why would they risk putting themselves in the position of being unable to control how they are perceived?

They wouldn't, which makes Mr. Cooper think reporters should mostly leave candidates alone and go off and write "more interesting and substantive articles using public communications, polling, policy documents, and so forth." 

I'm all for more substantive articles. 

The general point that social media may allow candidates to pay less attention to mainstream media has, no doubt, some validity. And there may well come a time when social media is powerful enough to elect a president, but we are not there yet. 

I think what this means is that we are in a transition period in which candidates are trying to gauge how well they can control their own message through social media, understanding, despite Mr. Cooper's argument, that mainstream political reporting is not dead yet, and it still has to be engaged in a significant sense. 

This is what I find most interesting. It's not an either/or proposition, it's a matter of proportion between the influence of the relatively anarchic realm of social media and the centralized power of major media conglomerates, and the reporters who work for them. 

It's also worth noting that social media and corporate media are not entirely separate entities. I'm reminded of the fact that the first time I saw Hillary Clinton's campaign announcement web video was on CNN. And my guess is that those reporters Mr. Cooper thinks will play a diminishing role campaigns can actually do a lot to promote or bury a given candidate's social media profile. Again, not either/or. 

I recall something I once heard on an episode of the West Wing, which is that one ought "never argue with a man who buys [printer's] ink by the barrel." The political press still buys the stuff by the barrel and I don't think we will see them sidelined by 2016, and I wouldn't suggest pissing them off for all the Tweets in the world. 

But I look forward to a time when the balance shifts, when candidates won't have to be vetted and approved by a centralized corporate media, when there will be a way around them, although I suspect in the end corporate media will simply find more effective ways of controlling social media. 

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  • That's an excellent point about it not being either/or. But I would go further. The internet has simply turned into an advertising platform in which advertisers have far more control than they used to. So social media is just a better form of advertising. It isn't fundamentally different. But it is true that most elite political reporters are really lazy and social media does make them irrelevant. Not that they will lose their jobs over it. When does that ever happen to people in the upper class?

    By Blogger Frank Moraes, at 10:32 PM  

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