Hope or Hype? The Politics of Social Media

Posted by · January 31, 2012 1:42 pm

Monday at 5:30 p.m. (EST), U.S. President Barack Obama logged onto the White House Google Plus account to host “Your Interview with the President” (see video below), during which the American President took time to answer YouTube users’ questions and concerns about the country’s political trajectory. Because nearly a quarter million users participated in the event, the President only had time to answer the questions that received the most votes from other YouTube users. In addition to those questions, six participants were given the privilege of being invited to join President Obama in a live conversation on Google’s social site.

Many questions posed both in the YouTube videos and by the live guests primarily expressed concerns about the economy, unemployment, foreign aid and education. The conversation also included a brief discussion of the President’s thoughts on the recently defeated anti-piracy legislation and how his administration plans to protect intellectual property without compromising Internet freedom.

Several of the President’s answers included references to last week’s State Of The Union Address, during which the President boasted of the American economy’s slow but sure turnaround—most notably in the area of private sector job growth—since his administration took office in 2008. And much like his call to “build on this momentum” that underscored the economic portion of his speech last week, one of his resounding messages to his viewers and fellow participants Monday was that there is still work that needs to be done.

Undoubtedly for some, the event seemed to be little more than a 45-minute session of pat answers, platitudes and political pandering. For others, meanwhile, the President’s offer to set aside some time to hold a real conversation with ordinary Americans and address their individual concerns could not have been a greater gesture to a public that rests on the brink of total political disillusionment.

Let’s discuss why, notwithstanding my own political views compared to those of the President, I tend to argue the latter and, in addition, suggest that social media could forever change the way that average citizens engage the world of politics.

#1 – No Matter How Small, People Remember a Personal Connection

After tuning into the President’s “Hangout” for myself, there is no question that the six live participants walked away from that conversation feeling that their voices had been legitimately heard. Regardless of how sincere one might or might not think the President was, the reality is that these six people—and viewers who empathized with each of their situations—experienced a connection with the President that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

In fact, the way that the moderator wrapped up the event made sure of it. Before signing off, each of the six attendees had the opportunity to ask the President a personal question. Questions and comments ranged from requests for the President to sing another song to congratulations on the First Couple’s upcoming 20th wedding anniversary. One participant even brought her three speechless children on camera for the rare opportunity meet the American head of state. Needless to say, the President left little room for viewers to doubt his humanity.

#2 – Social Media—Not the Major Networks—Now Control the Story

Speaking at the AllThingsD media conference Monday night, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told his audience, “I really think 2012 is going to be the Twitter Election.” While the typically soft-spoken exec might have come across as incredibly confident to some in the audience, his suggestion is no less valid. After all, as evidenced by his comments that followed, Costolo was simply making the observation that Twitter—and social media in general—has clearly become a mandatory component of any successful candidate’s campaign.  Never before have political candidates been able to enjoy this kind of real-time connection with potential voters, and vice versa. And as a result, maintaining a high level of quality engagement across these platforms has suddenly become imperative.

“Candidates who don’t participate in the conversation on Twitter will be left behind,” the Twitter CEO continued. “The next morning is too late to respond.”

Whether it’s an aspiring politician seeking elective office or an incumbent gathering support for his or her agenda, the means by which politicians recruit support and shape the public’s perception has shifted drastically. Instead of going through network talking heads, both politicians and voters now have a direct means of engagement, forcing media pundits to report on that dialogue instead of painting the political landscape with whatever brand of spin they choose.

Whether it’s through the direct engagement of digital town halls or the increased use of social media for everyday people to express their views on the direction of the country, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn have revolutionized the way that people engage the political world.

#3 – Social Media Is the New Polis

Notwithstanding some of its more repressive elements, Hellenistic culture brought with it a means of engaging political life that revolutionized all prior conceptions. The structure of the Polis laid a foundation of freedom and equity (at least through the lens of that time period) that invited public discourse regarding life’s weightier matters.  While the U.S. certainly borrowed from the Greek playbook in the establishment of its governmental structure, much of the political dialogue has typically been reserved for the modern day patricians, leaving us plebeians with little to contribute to the national political discourse than the occasional vote that a minority of plebes actually utilize.

That is, until now.

As politicians and voters continue to engage each other via the various social media outlets, a new Polis has come into being. Building upon the foundation laid by the Greeks and Romans, social media has built a forum with even greater degrees of freedom and equality than before. Viewpoints can be exchanged. Philosophies can be argued. And best of all, those concerns can be presented directly to the people who create and enforce the policies that govern this country.

The new Polis that is social media has begun to blur the line between the modern day plebeians and patricians, even if only in the realm of political discourse for the time being. People of all ages, genders, races, religions and sexual orientations can now join the discussion and be heard just as loudly as the next person by posting a tweet or updating one’s status. And the fact that candidates and incumbents now spend so much time engaging their constituents through these mediums is proof of the same.

As a result, we are witnessing what could prove to be the beginning of an era, an era in which the voice of democracy can be maximized without sacrificing the republic which holds the mob-like character of the masses at bay. The advent of this new Polis could mark the beginning of a new renaissance, a culture in which the exchange of ideas and the expansion of human intellect is given its due value and put to use as an engine for self-government.

No longer must we languish in a world where the important matters of life are relegated to taboo and ceded to an oft self-interested few. The new Polis beckons us to participate in a new, hopeful brand of democracy. That is, if we can keep it.