Most observers claim that there has never been a political year like this one. They’re right. But the new political environment is much more than the presence of Donald Trump. Trump’s success has resulted–at least partially—from deft use of Social Media, which has become the engine driving politics.
Social Media will probably dominate politics from here forward. Though it has been around politics for nearly ten years, it hadn’t achieved critical mass politics until the current cycle. It was a significant factor as early as the presidential elections of 2008. But its real power had not yet evolved until this election year. In 2008, most smartphones were used primarily by younger people. Older people used them only as mobile email devices. Now a majority of voters are Social Media users.
Politicians, of course, will tell us that Social Media is nothing new. They insist that that they have been using Social Media since it began. But like most political statements, their assurances are technically true but don’t tell the real story.
Most of our political leaders have websites. Many use Twitter. A few have Facebook pages. But they use those modern tools to communicate in obsolete ways. They use Twitter as a convenient method for sending out a one-way message. In that simple application, a tweet is somewhat like a PR release though it’s shorter and faster.
Current office-holders don’t yet understand what has been happening. In their offices, junior staffers generate most outgoing political tweets. The Senators, Representatives, and Governors often don’t know how to use technologies. They seldom read replies to their tweets. The average age of US Senators today is 63. Several are more than 80 years old. The majority were lawyers. Very few have technical backgrounds of any kind. They are no more tech-savvy than private citizens of their generation. This limited understanding doesn’t denigrate them. It simply explains why they don’t realize how Social Media has changed their world. But as they retire or face defeat, their replacements will be from a new generation that will make Social Media even more powerful.
Social Media takes the power away from voting bloc politics.
Here’s how the old politics compares to the new environment. In traditional campaigns, politicians have concentrated on voters as blocs. There have been union blocs, religious blocs, gender blocs, racial blocs, education-level blocs, financial-level blocs and others that are specifically regional. Politicians seek support from leaders of these blocs. Once committed, bloc leadership uses conventional communications to support the politicians. They use promises, rewards, and sometimes punishment to tell their voters how to vote. They attempt to convince them that voting with their bloc is the right thing to do. As with most other opinion-forming efforts, voters usually remain emotionally committed to their bloc-supported candidates and consider no alternative arguments.
When an opinion gains energy on Social Media, however, it may “go viral” in only a few minutes. Many people then form their opinions days before bloc leaders can drive their candidate narrative. Social Media continues relentlessly 24 x 7 and doesn’t wait for any specific events. It provides opportunities for two-way communications to everyone and registers the weight of trending opinions in real-time. Many Social Media users note what is trending and follow the crowd.
Over the past half-century, people have become more and more independent in forming their voting preferences. Many years ago, wives voted as their husbands instructed. Children voted as their parents taught them. But as new generations reached voting age, people began paying more attention to the ideas of their peers.
As the older voters pass away, their replacements pay attention to peers on Social Media, watch trends develop—often within minutes—and jump on an opinion train that makes the most sense to them. They don’t wait for political brochures stuffed into their pay envelopes. They don’t wait for the next church sermon. They don’t know or care whether some Social Media input comes from people of a different race, religion, or gender.
Along with Social Media, voters pay attention to TV news, especially the 24-hour cable news networks like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. But a significant portion of the political news from those networks comes from Social Media. Donald Trump has mastered this process and has used it to drive the success he currently enjoys. He tweets an average of 12 times every day. Every news outlet follows his Twitter account and transforms any juicy tweets—positive or negative—into news stories. The news stories then become items for bloggers and commenters on Social Media platforms.
A final effect of Social Media on today’s politics is in people sharing partisan nonsense from obscure sites and re-posting them as proof statements for their personal partisanship. When these items draw fire from opposing opinions, wars-of-words ensue. The created fog and bad feelings can become vicious, and end relationships. This kind of conflict reflects the negative side of Social Media.
One final thought: Social Media has become a worldwide political engine. Since Social Media became prominent, we have seen active groups, like the millions who participated in the Arab Spring, the revolt in Syria, and the uprising that destroyed Muammar Gaddafi. In countries like these, very poor people and energized students complained bitterly, prayed for change, and discussed political action in small groups everywhere, Previously, however, reality would get in the way, powerful governments would kill a few people, and revolutions pulled back into grudging acceptance of the status quo.
Social Media has changed everything in these countries because new ideas don’t have time to lose their excitement. A group of ten people can multiply to a hundred in only a few seconds. Then a hundred can become a thousand and a thousand can become one hundred thousand. If only a few of those take action, thousands more may follow. They don’t have to understand issues; they only need to know that someone they admire leads them. In a way, it’s like mob rule. Within a few days, millions may follow a revolutionary group, and accept it’s leaders as change agents.
My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX