The Shape of Politics to Come II: Rise of Social Media

May 10, 2007

This development is of immediate relevance for the “media elites”, but may end up being a deeper change than that discussed in Part I. I will begin by briefly reviewing the Gravel story:

1) In spite of having announced his candidacy almost one year before the front-runners, Sen. Gravel remained a complete unkonwn. Sen. Gravel was invited to only the first debate in South Carolina hosted by MSNBC, and none of the subsequent ones run and televised by CNN, and was scarcely mentioned by any of the media prior to the April 26 S.C. debate.

2) After his powerful performance in the first debate, the media covering the event purported to see him as a clown offering comic relief, and one who wouldn’t be seen or heard from again. But thousands of people who had never heard of him before that night went to the ‘net and began promoting him via numerous individual blogs, but also social networking and internet sites where users, instead of proprieters rate and promote content, such as digg. These particularly promoted the videos posted on YouTube by users. The videos then seen and re-promoted, by links, to many more people than would have ordinarily seen any of the debate at all.

3) Some of the more inspired among those among the internet crowd signed a petition to CNN and the organizers of the June 3 debate in New Hampshire to relent and invite Gravel. Eventually, after the petition garnered more than 5 thousand signatures and his website received as much traffic (for a few days at least) as the fully funded candidates, CNN did invite Gravel to the next debate.

And this is not an isolated sequence of events: it seemed that something similar happened with libertarian dissident candidate Ron Paul on the GOP side. What these events portend is a loosening of the grip of the big centralized media, and its replacement by a more distributed, but in some cases, self-directing mass of users. This phenomenon is related to, but distinct from the “netroots”, which are usually thought of as being based on such sites as, Dailykos, and Talking Points Memo. Although such sites in their own way take a chunk of power away from established media conglomerates such as The Times/Washington Post “liberal” axis and the Wall Street Journal/Fox News “conservative” axis (strong caveats are understood about using such labels–but they can’t be helped if one wants to refer to such things succintly), they also are open to the charge, quite justifiably so in some cases, of carrying water for a more established group or ideology–in the cases I have mentioned, the Democratic Party–at the expense of accuracy and broad representation of viewpoints. The social media, being (apprently) the result of a self-organizing “mob” seems to circumvent that problem.

The respect in which the elite is to blame for its own gradual loss of control over the flow of information is obvious, the main source being the systematic shutting out of viewpoints with wide constuencies among the public–or at least, of wide interest to the public–but not in line with the corporate agenda. This has gone hand in hand with the corporate consolidation of the old media, continuing to this moment with Murdoch’s bid to buy the Wall Street Journal. A topical, but clearly related source, is the extent to which they allowed themselves to become shills for government insiders pushing all sorts of dubious claims–now revealed to be false–about the extent and nature of Iraqi weapons programs in 2002. Being revealed now through work such as the Bill Moyers’ series “Buying the War” these flagrant derelictions of duty are having an impact on credibility.

The downsides of this trend are a little less evident than in the Case of I, the Rise of Opposition to the Military-Industrial Complex, but are discernable nonetheless. The first is that people will mistake the sort of modest preliminary victory that can be won by the social media–such as getting a hitherto ignored candidate a little TV exposure–for a substantive victory. Thus, the initial victory will not be followed up by the real-world organizing and in-depth persuasion needed to sway people and change their thought-patterns, and any gain will simply fizzle. In this way, the time spent on promoting ideas via social media may prove to be wasted. The second is that the various well-funded actors with their own agendas will learn how to use and manipulate the social media under the disguise of ordinary users or grass-roots groups. To some extent, this seems to be what occured in some of the “Color Revolutions” that occured in 2004-5 in Russia’s near abroad: Western financed groups and local groups with particular economic interests and agendas posed as citizens’ movements by using the organizing and social networking tools associated with the anti-Communist and anti-Authoritarian revolutions of the early ’90s. I doubt that Americans are any more savvy at avoiding these sorts of feints, but as yet the social media is still not powerful enough in comparison to the established media to make it worthwhile for American corporations to invest the resources needed to manipulate it to their own ends. This is something to watch out for, though.

To follow soon: “Part III: Re-examining the Constitution of 1787”
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