September 4, 2015

HOW SOCIAL MEDIA IS RUINING POLITICS: With a headline like that, you won’t be surprised to learn that Nicholas Carr, who in 2008 asked “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the Atlantic, the first draft of his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, isn’t a fan of social media. At the Politico, he places it into context with the 20th century’s communication revolutions and their impact on national politics:

Twice before in the last hundred years a new medium has transformed elections. In the 1920s, radio disembodied candidates, reducing them to voices. It also made national campaigns far more intimate. Politicians, used to bellowing at fairgrounds and train depots, found themselves talking to families in their homes. The blustery rhetoric that stirred big, partisan crowds came off as shrill and off-putting when piped into a living room or a kitchen. Gathered around their wireless sets, the public wanted an avuncular statesman, not a firebrand. With Franklin Roosevelt, master of the soothing fireside chat, the new medium found its ideal messenger.

In the 1960s, television gave candidates their bodies back, at least in two dimensions. With its jumpy cuts and pitiless close-ups, TV placed a stress on sound bites, good teeth and an easy manner. Image became everything, as the line between politician and celebrity blurred. John Kennedy was the first successful candidate of the TV era, but it was Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who perfected the form. Born actors, they could project a down-home demeanor while also seeming bigger than life.

Today, with the public looking to smartphones for news and entertainment, we seem to be at the start of the third big technological makeover of modern electioneering. The presidential campaign is becoming just another social-media stream, its swift and shallow current intertwining with all the other streams that flow through people’s devices. This shift is changing the way politicians communicate with voters, altering the tone and content of political speech. But it’s doing more than that. It’s changing what the country wants and expects from its would-be leaders.

What’s important now is not so much image as personality. But, as the Trump phenomenon reveals, it’s only a particular kind of personality that works—one that’s big enough to grab the attention of the perpetually distracted but small enough to fit neatly into a thousand tiny media containers. It might best be described as a Snapchat personality. It bursts into focus at regular intervals without ever demanding steady concentration.

Perhaps that explains why Trump has been the Teflon Don, cheerfully rebounding from endless gaffes and head-scratching statements that would bury other candidates. As Leon Wolf wrote last month at Red State, “Trump is the political equivalent of chaff:”

Watching Donald Trump speak and answer questions, though, is like watching a billion targets appear in the sky all at once, for a political opponent. Each thing he says is so bizarre, or ill informed, or demonstrably false, or un presidential in tone or character, that it becomes impossible to know which target to lock on to or focus on. And to the extent that he makes a policy statement, it is so hopelessly vague and ludicrous that it’s impossible to know where to begin, at least within the context of the 30-second soundbite that the modern political consumer requires (and chances are, he will say something diametrically opposed to it before the press conference is over anyway).

Donald Trump is the political equivalent of chaff, a billion shiny objects all floating through the sky at once, ephemeral, practically without substance, serving almost exclusively to distract from more important things – yet nonetheless completely impossible to ignore.

Which, to return to Carr’s theorem, sounds exactly like the nature of Twitter itself, doesn’t it?

Of course, at the start of 2004, plenty of left-leaning pundits were writing think pieces on how Howard Dean was the candidate who had mastered social media, only to see him spectacularly flameout with his infamous YEEEARRRRGH!!!! moment, causing the Democrats en masse to place their bets on a dull plonker like John Kerry. Given his disastrous performance yesterday talking foreign policy with Hugh Hewitt, Trump could similarly implode. (In the meantime, Trump has switched back into the thing he does best: Attack! Attack! Attack! at least when attack mode is aimed at Republicans.)

As for his Democrat opponent, a question: After narrowly losing the 1960 election in part because of Kennedy’s photogenic looks and his Democrat media operatives, Richard Nixon mastered the skill-set of that decade’s television, rebranded himself as “The New Nixon,” and went on to win the 1968 election. Starting in 2007, the Obama campaign skillfully used the Internet, social media, graphic design, and their friends in the MSM to end-run what Hillary Clinton had so clearly planned at the start of that year as her inevitable coronation. Clinton and her handlers have had years to study how they were broadsided, and adapt accordingly. Why do they seem so awful at stagecraft and packaging in the Internet era?

(H/T fellow Insta-contributor Virginia Postrel.)

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