TAG | barack obama
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are running for president in what has widely been said to be the first true social media election. The Democrats’ superior use of social media is claimed to be one of the factors behind Obama’s victory in 2008 and four years later the Republicans are determined to keep up. When 94% of social media users of voting-age are likely to watch an entire political message online the opportunity to be heard is unmissable.
Much of the debate surrounding this issue focuses on what social media means for politics and future political campaigns. Will facebook friends, followers and retweets become marks on a ballot form? Will events such as Obama’s ‘Twitter Town Hall’ replace more traditional grassroots political activities? Social media might be reshaping the political landscape, but what does all this political interfering mean for social media?
Politicians need to spread their message as far and as wide as possible and social media provides a platform to communicate with a vast network of users. We’ve seen businesses do the same and use social media sites to spread their brand message. But are they ‘taking advantage of’ or ‘manipulating’ social media? No, because social media can facilitate communication between politicians and citizens; on a broad scale as well as a personal one but most importantly it allows citizens to communicate back.
There is something about harnessing social media to aid political campaigns that makes me feel uneasy. But I think the reason for this is because campaigners’ approaches feel measured and calculated in a way that is in opposition to the free and easy flow of information that I associate with Web 2.0. There are teams of people who run the social media side of political campaigns and this can make them feel orchestrated or fake. Facebook even have their own Political Outreach Manager to advise political officials on how to use facebook most to their advantage in campaigns. However, social media can also facilitate interaction on a more genuine and personal level; Obama took part in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on reddit and Romney is running a competition to win a ride in his private jet. In these instances both candidates are trying to engage with individuals rather than a whole population; a task made much easier by social media websites.
The wonderful thing about Web 2.0 is the control it gives to users. Politicians can try to use social media to spread their political messages but ultimately they have little control over that message once it is released and as a result their attempts can backfire. Web 2.0 is a two-way street and if you communicate through social media you become involved in a dialogue. Therefore, politicians can’t carelessly throw out propaganda on social media sites because it will inevitably be thrown back and normally in a much more amusing format.
The fact that social media facilitates a dialogue means that it also allows citizens the opportunity to express political opinions. Social media is reported as playing a role- the size of which is disputed- in the recent political revolutions in Egypt and Libya. Twitter provided a fast way to spread information of protests with hash tags detailing times and dates. Facebook pages with times and dates of protests were created. But it is not true to say that social media provides a universal platform for communication free from the confines of geographical and political boarders. Mark Zuckerberg may intend Facebook to “bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people” but the ways in which politics and social media interact differ vastly between cultures with some political regimes ban social media sites completely. In comparison to this, politicians engaging with social media and using it to increase interaction with citizens looks like a very good thing.
UK politicians have made tentative steps into social media but it will be interesting to see if the recent trends observed in the US are mirrored over here. If the run up to the 2015 UK election has a strong social media focus, we may have more than just the return of WebCameron to look forward to. Is politics reshaping the landscape of social media? Yes, but social media is a constantly changing entity. The beliefs and actions of politicians shape every aspect of our lives – a lot more than a tweet about someone’s breakfast or a youtube video of a surprised kitten.
It seems the gap between politicians and the public has never been wider. A lack of trust in our representatives – in their motives, spending habits, and fundamental ability to lead has damaged the reputation of MPs and British politics as a whole. The public feel disenfranchised, ignored and, worst of all, completely disconnected from the democratic process. The recent parliamentary expenses scandal has only reinforced this.
And yet, we live in a world in which, in other ways, we feel very connected. The Internet, and specifically, Web 2.0 technology, smoothly connects us to our friends, family, and those with similar interests, tastes and beliefs. The Internet has moved from a centralized source of information into a collaborative space in which we can create online communities, debate and discuss ideas, and build partnerships with people on the other side of the world. And though these interactions may be virtual, they are fortified by all kinds of innovative and powerful tools – from webcasts to wikis to online games.
In comparison, new modes of political participation lag behind. As much as the Internet promises a free, open, democratic space for people from all backgrounds to express their political viewpoints – politicians, the government and lawmakers are failing to connect. Traditional modes of political participation seem old-fashioned and stiff and, there is little conversation between the represented and the representatives. While the web is full of political expression and debate, there are very few sites that represent or collect these viewpoints into a coherent whole. People may be talking, but the people with real power aren’t listening.
Across the Atlantic, the potential of web 2.0 within politics was aptly demonstrated by President Obama’s election campaign and current presidency. Not only does Obama use social networking to connect with supporters, he has also created a website – my.barackobama.com – which allows users to create their own profile complete with a customized description, friends list and personal blog. They can join groups, participate in fund raising, and arrange events all from an interface that is both easy-to-use and familiar to any Facebook or MySpace user. This harnessing of web 2.0 is more than just a way of harnessing support – it actually allows people to a have a political voice, in a way that feels familiar and comfortable to them. The key to its success is that it puts power in the hands of people to shape their own lives and communities to, as Obama puts it himself: “bring about real change in Washington”.
In the UK, there seems to be a real lack of faith in that potential for change – a fact the government is starting to clock on to. They have started several initiatives based around the number10.gov.uk hub – the central government website specifically targeted toward the general public. Matt wrote about it last year following its launch in August 2008. Apart from the weekly (and slightly embarrassing) Gordon Brown webcasts, a plethora of well-presented information about the functions and purpose of the government, there are a number of web 2.0 initiatives. For example, sites like No.10 petitions in partnership with mysociety.org, allow users to start and gain support for their own petitions. But as Stephen Coleman puts it “inviting people to sign e-petitions to No 10 and then await an email from the government telling them why they were wrong is hardly digital democracy”. And within the number10.gov.uk website as a whole, there is precious little opportunity for real ‘e-democracy’, what Jay Blumler describes as “online civic commons: a trusted public space where the dispersed energies, self-articulations and aspirations of citizens can be rehearsed, in public, within a process of ongoing feedback to the various levels and centres of governance”.
As the Obama administration establishes the Office of Public Engagement, designed to bring more citizen engagement through the Web, it is time we use the potential of web 2.0 technologies to create a much closer and accountable relationship between the needs of citizens and the actions of politicians, in which the public’s ideas and beliefs are taken seriously and acted upon. Any future government must embrace this new form of democracy, if it is to have any chance of regaining the trust and support of its electorate.
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