Social media are transforming politics in surprising ways. The new tools aren’t supplanting the old one that has defined and delivered our elections for decades - television. They’ve moved in beside TV and are altering how we use it.
For a better understanding of this shifting landscape, we chatted with Andrew Heyward, the former President of CBS News (1996-2005), who now advises media and technology companies including Bluefin Labs, home of The Crowdwire. Straddling two eras, Heyward explains what’s new about this election, what isn’t, and where we’re headed next.
Let’s start with the role of television in this campaign. How has it changed from a decade ago?
The role of TV is very similar to ten years ago. What’s changed is that TV is no longer the only place where important impressions about the campaign are being created. Television pretends to be a conversation, but it’s mostly a conversation between insiders, with the occasional insertion of a vox populi - and that’s often canned.
What’s great about the current environment is that it’s what the Founding Fathers had in mind, except at an inconceivable scale. Social media allow anyone to join the conversation. It’s had a wonderful democratizing influence, freeing people to express their opinions outside the gatekeepers of TV or newspapers. At the same time, it’s a fantastic tool for sociologists and political analysts to observe the campaign as it evolves.
And social media have a symbiotic relationship with TV. It’s TV that exposes the candidates and issues to the public. Then social media allow ordinary citizens to talk back to the TV and to talk amongst themselves.
You mentioned that TV’s basic function hasn’t changed all that much. What else hasn’t changed?
The campaigns are essentially packaged for TV, as they have been for decades. The candidates themselves are carefully groomed for TV consumption, and so is almost everything they say. They’re now like ultra-sophisticated media companies using multiple technologies to reach voters. But television is still the most powerful by far.
What did you think of the debates, not just as electoral events but as TV? Were they good TV?
I think they were fine, adequate. The producers are hemmed in by the fact that the campaigns negotiate almost every aspect of the programs - the format, the setting and so on. Yes, they’re live on television, but they’re not anywhere near as freewheeling as the word ‘debate’ would suggest.
If Romney wins, that first debate is going to take on historical importance at the level of Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. The race changed significantly as a result. President Obama had an opportunity there to solidify a victory, as opposed to putting a victory in doubt.
One other noteworthy aspect of the debates, and you pointed this out on The Crowdwire, was that a significant portion of the comments about the debates were devoted to policy.
Were you surprised at the size of the TV audience - the fact that nearly 70 million watched the first one?
I was pleasantly surprised but not terribly surprised. There are very significant differences between the candidates. I think people are sick of commercials, canned appearances and pundits, and the chance to actually see the candidates themselves on the stage is very powerful and appealing.
More generally, do you see downsides to this media transformation?
I think there are several. One aspect of the symbiotic relationship between social media and the commentariat in general, is that the reaction is now so swift and large, it’s actually contributing to wilder swings of the pendulum than we had before. The scrutiny that every single utterance gets, and the sheer amount of analysis and commentary, has the potential to turn hiccups into bellows and roars.
Arguably, the negative effect for the Obama campaign from the first debate was a result as much of the reaction to the debate as to the debate itself. Because not everyone watched it. If you didn’t watch it and only heard about it, then I think you might get an even more extreme impression of one-sidedness - Obama took a drubbing - than if you had watched it. There’s a kind of echo effect that might be distorted
Another possible negative, related to the first, is we don’t really know yet the degree to which the Twitter-using population accurately reflects the population at large. Yet because it’s so tempting to analyze the data and because in fact there are very interesting observations to be made, there’s always a risk that the Twitter-using population has a disproportionate influence on people’s perception of how the race is going.
A final potential downside is the possibility that social media can be gamed or manipulated. But again, when you analyze social media as an indicator of trends, you just have to be aware there are these potential pitfalls.
How have social tools changed the practice of political journalism?
We’ve already talked about a couple of them. Twitter has become a significant source of not just sentiment but content. Journalists, as users of Twitter, are also publishers and content creators themselves. This is a very effective way for journalists and analysts to share their views in a pithy and instantaneous form. It’s a very valuable way for those who cover the race and think about the race to share content.
The upside here - and also the downside - is that Twitter forces you to condense your insights and observations to 140-character units. You could argue that that imposes a wonderful discipline or that it creates a forced superficiality.
It’s also an enormously effective way to distribute longer-form content through links. That’s new and important. It’s a significant form of distribution and content- awareness-building, and not just for the short-form stuff.
During debates and other big, televised campaign events, do you keep one eye on Twitter and/or Facebook in real-time?
I don’t happen to do that, because I really like the idea of focusing and forming my own impressions. But I see why that’s an appealing way to watch these events for a lot of people. And certainly on election night I will be at least a two- and probably a three-screen person. That’s the way the world is going.
Among the people and organizations you follow on Twitter, do you have a favorite?
No, to me what’s fascinating is the overall phenomenon rather than the particular insights of one or two individuals. Right now, the whole is more interesting than the parts.