The first election to feature widespread and mainstream social networking is upon us. Republicans, Democrats and independents are all tweeting up a storm and perpetually updating their Facebook statuses. Even so, commentators are (rightly) dubious about the value of such campaigning. Given the scope of the Internet, there’s more access to gossip, intimation and actual intelligence than ever before, but just like with traditional media (see Swift Boat Veterans for Truth), this intelligence is vulnerable to cherry-picking, disinformation and outright fabrication.
Writes Frank Rich in the New York Times, “The explosion of accessible media and information on the Web, with its potential to give civic discourse a factual baseline and hold politicians accountable, has also given partisans license to find only the ‘facts’ that fit their prejudices.” In other words, slandering an opponent via tweet is proving to be as expediently political a use for social media as promoting a congressman’s policies or publicizing a candidate’s appearances. We’re seeing that as far as campaigning goes, medium is more malleable than message—analog or digital, broadsheet or tweet—and electioneering remains more or less the same as it’s always been in American politics. When Web 3.0 fuels an election, factcheck.org will be just as busy—and as vital—then as it is now.
It should come as no surprise that real change and real progress in America need to be a fusion of online and offline. In citing the Internet’s contribution to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, commentators lose sight of the fact that the digital portion of the campaign—that is, the web-based, dot-com promotion—was, by definition, virtual. Obama defeated McCain with real votes, real money and real get-out-the-vote efforts. Facebook and Twitter can certainly organize, but we also need door to door canvassing and old-fashioned organizing in barber shops, American Legion and union halls, bowling alleys and bars.
Motive is still important in activism and organization, and such an organic, emotional trigger cannot be digitally programmed. Social networking websites,” write Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, “can play and are playing an important role in finding and connecting people who are beginning to think and feel similar things. They can help participants deepen their understanding and form common perspectives. They can help inform those who use them of possible courses of action. New technology, that is, can dictate how progress will happen, but cannot by itself prescribe that change in the first place.
As Julian E. Zelizer explains in a post for CNN, the limitations of the new online brand of campaigning are very real: “What makes Facebook politics vulnerable is that it lacks the local element that has always been so crucial to politics. The most durable forms of political organization have usually depended on local organizing. During the 19th century, political parties were dependent on a dense bottom-up structure rooted in the strength of local political machines.”
Politics is about people and messages, and a candidate or movement or cause cannot find political success without cultivating both. A message born in Yakima and propagated around cyberspace is good at inspiring mean-spirited signs and rallies in Daytona, but it doesn’t exactly yield votes to a candidate in Wichita. Political change may only be successful where street meets cloud.