No. 35

THE MESSAGE IS THE MEDIUM IS MUCH THE SAME

STONE the crows! It’s going to be a noisy election. According to social media spruikers, twitter has taken over, making editors obsolete as reporters file direct to readers who respond with their own instant analysis.

Just as the twitterati was commenting on President Obama’s State of the Union address, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were still arguing as the assessments of their performance occurred.

“Twitter is becoming a vehicle for participatory democracy in Australia thanks to its ability to create unmediated interaction between political journalists, engaged citizens and politicians,” University of Canberra academic Julie Posetti wrote in March.[1]

Veteran cultural studies commentator Stuart Cunningham claims, “the irresistible array of new communication activity engendered by new digital technologies has reached a stage where mainstream media and political leadership can no longer deny or avoid it, or operate effectively without engaging with it.” [2]

In reply to which the crows just caw. These arguments have less to do with the actual impact of social media on politics than the aspirations of academics and self-appointed opinion leaders to get into the act.

Social media urgers have the argument half right. The new technology means news and gossip gets into circulation faster than any spin-doctor can control.

In a classic case of studying the story everybody else has forgotten, online or anywhere else, Posetti (who describes herself as a “senior political journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery” before becoming an academic) is working on an analysis of the role of social media in covering the coup against Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull. Oh come on, you remember him, the bloke between Brendan Nelson and Tony Abbott. [3]

It’s a shame she is not writing about the removal of Kevin Rudd. While her line about participatory democracy is unconvincing the twitterfest on the night of 23 June was  “unmediated interaction” in spades.

Everybody who watched Sky News cover the breaking story (ABC TV wasn’t interested until David Stratton got really boring on The Movie Show) knows the role Twitter played in the most extraordinary political play ever seen in Australia.

Journalists David Spears, Kieran Gilbert and Ashleigh Gillon were centre stage, receiving tweets from Labor contacts as the drama unfolded.

Although the Crows have no clue how the coup occurred, they suspect the Sky trio reading tweets from Labor Party players pushed it along, with MPs seeing the way the cyber wind was blowing and switched sides as the evening progressed.

The Sky team was right to report what they heard but the impact of their accomplishment is unsettling – the information they aired helped Julia Gillard do in hours to Kevin Rudd what took Paul Keating years to do Bob Hawke.

The coup is an excellent example of Mark Roeder’s argument about the way social media shapes politics:

The juggernaut aspect of the media is often used to good effect by politicians and their Machiavellian handlers. They know if they can create enough momentum for their cause, keep feeding it and stay “on message” it will soon become a self-perpetuating force that is difficult for their opponents to stop.[4]

Thanks to Twitter, and with apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the momentum is the message.

We saw the way instant messaging is the most mass of communications last year in Tehran. A grass-roots insurgency used Twitter to protest that the state had stolen the national elections. And while the government could control conventional media with the standard tricks of the censor’s trade, there was not much it could do to stop angry Iranians tweeting and texting. To keep the momentum up, the US State Department asked Twitter to delay a maintenance shut-down. [5]

But while social media works for self-organising insurgents it is even more useful for old fashioned political parties. The Obama presidential campaign used social media to get its message out and raise US$500 million. This was less grass-roots democracy in action than a stock standard campaign, using new media to reach old objectives. The Obama machine used the Internet to advertise, relying on paid Google space to promote rallies and recruit volunteers. “The big trick was organisation,” campaign manager David Plouffe writes.[6]

And as for social media empowering independent arguments and ending the power of politicians and well-resourced interest groups with resources to shape debates, the reverse is occurring, at least in the US.

Pew Center research says a third of online aficionados get their political information from sites that suit their point of view, up from 26 per cent in 2004:

Politically interested internet users have access to a wealth of political content online, along with new tools for finding, customising and filtering highly targeted political commentary. As a result they are delving more deeply into the “long tail” of online political content where they frequently seek out information that carries a distinct partisan slant and comes from sources beyond traditional news content.[7]

The challenge for the players is to learn to manage social media to channel momentum to advance their own objectives and expand the impact of their ideas. Which requires what politics has always relied on, organisation and intellectual ammunition.

And for as long as the established parties outgun the activists in terms of administration and policies that appeal to the mass electorate, the new technologies are just another box to tick on the media schedules.

Sydney University’s Peter Chen predicts online media will deliver more of the same sort of politics in this election:

…the pattern of new media politics is likely to be repeated in 2010, the major parties, with their overwhelming resources and disproportionate mainstream media coverage, will continue to dominate political journalism and the alternative blogosphere, irrespective of their declining “rusted on” support. [8]

And as for all the talk of innovation, tweeting today is just a scaled-up version of what word of mouth momentum achieved in pre-industrial cities. Victor Hugo explained the way “unmediated interaction” outsmarted the state in Les Miserables when he wrote about the way riot became rebellion:  “Nothing is more extraordinary than the first breaking out of a riot. Everything bursts forth everywhere at once. Was it foreseen? Yes. Was it prepared? No. Whence comes it? From the pavements. Whence falls it? From the clouds.”[9]

Tweeting: new media same old politics.

stephen4@hotkey.net.au


[1] Julie Posetti, “The #spill effect: Twitter Hashtag Upends Australian Political Journalism”, Media Shift @ www.pbs.org/mediashift

[2] Stuart Cunningham, “Political and Media Leadership in the Age of YouTube” in Paul t’Hart and John Uhr(?) Political Leadership in Perspective and Practice, (ANU E Press, 2009) 177-186, 180

[3] www.expertguide.com.au/JuliePosetti

[4] Mark Roeder, The Big Mo: Why Momentum Now Rules Our World (ABC Books, 2010) 79

[5] Evgeny Morozov, “Iran Election: A Twitter Revolution” The Washington Post, June 17, 2009

[6] David Plouffe, “The Internet and Presidential Politics”  (in) The Institute of Politics, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Campaign for President: The Managers look at 2008 , Rowman and Littlefield, 2009) 95-109, 98

[7] Aaron Smith, The Internet’s Role in Campaign 2008 (Pew Research Center, 2009) 6,7

[8] Peter John Chen, “New media is still losing in the fight for votes”  Sydney Morning Herald, July 22

[9] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, vol iv, book 10, chap 4

'2012