Facebook Smear Mailer: Social Media as a Mere Political Menace… or More?

There’s a growing cultural gap out there: between folks who understand the import, and, much more importantly the lack of import, of things like Facebook and Twitter, and those that don’t. Primary voters in particular tend to contain a fairly large number of older voters who aren’t exactly computer, let alone social-media, savvy. The result is an audience largely out-of-the-loop when it comes to the causal degree with which people today are documenting, and glibly commenting on, their public and private lives.

This insight is clearly not lost on campaign PR firms, whose job it is to smear opposing candidates with themes that their carefully targeted audiences will find unappealing. Stripping words and images of their context (something conservative tabloid-ster Drudge has become especially adept at) and presenting it to an audience likely to take these things at face value is one of the oldest tricks in the book. And sites like Facebook are just the latest venue to seek dirt.

A recent case in point is Emanuel Pleitez, a fairly minor candidate running in the Democratic primary race for the CA-32 Congressional seat. Pleitez, like most people his age, has a Facebook page and plenty of camera-happy friends. And he’s been to parties with other human beings. And people have taken pictures of him at said parties. And posted them online.

All of which was fairly easily translated into a nasty mailer trying to paint Pleitez as a party animal, with even more disturbing alleged undertones of gang membership or even implied racial animus.

We’re sure to see plenty more of this sort of thing. Even big name politicians have started to embrace the new media ethos: relaying their spur of the moment experiences and impressions without the usual intervening safeguard of a on-message media operation. But it’s pretty obvious what to expect next: a few high-profile gaffes and the bright new world of brain-to-internet immediacy will lose a lot of its appeal, at least in the high-stakes political arena. There’s a reason that most politicians, no matter how articulate, still pay out big bucks for communications teams to vet their every utterance.

On the other hand, I’m not only an optimist, but someone who likes to think that societies aren’t always doomed to repeat the same tired cycles. As time goes on, fewer and fewer people are going to be mere consumers of soundbytes: more and more are going to get used to being amateur messengers themselves. They’re going to see their own unmoderated pronouncements picked apart and their own photos and quips selectively massaged and misread. As candidates start to reveal more and more of the goofy side of the sausage-making process that is modern politics, more and more voters will get a taste of same thing in their own personal lives. Is it too much to expect a trend towards a new, populist realism? Or an increasing public skepticism of uncompromising partisan pounces?

Because, honestly, it sometimes seems as if we’re already halfway there. When someone like Joe Biden or Newt Gingrich pulls out some silly offhand pull-quote without quite thinking through how it might be interpreted, even die-hard critics can often only pretend to be outraged. Worse, that outrage is often based almost entirely on the idea that the unwashed masses will be confused or scared by a politician’s inapt pronouncements. We end up with a media elite openly fretting, often with tongue-in-cheek, about how this or that oversimplified trope might confuse the unsavvy rabble, entirely neglecting any debate about the meanings anyone meant to convey.

How much of this meta-shock can a society take before it collapses under it’s own pompous weight? How long will audiences put up with it? Call it a pipe dream, but I’d love to see a voting public that’s far less conventionally cynical about politicians, but far more realistic about their messy humanity: taking their inevitable gaffes less seriously. Maybe we can all learn to cut twittering Congresswoman Claire McCaskill a little slack for musing about mall parking as potential bellweather for economic recovery.

We’ll still see plenty of attack pieces like the one that targeted Pleitez. But we’ll have too many people in on the joke for it to have anywhere near the same impact.

Plenty of people see social hubs like Facebook and twitter as just another cookie-cutter means to organize and deliver partisan messages, or another venue on which to troll for trip-ups. But I still can’t help but hope that there’s a bigger and better potential here: something a little more more humanizing than merely puerile and polarizing.

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~ by Drew on 2009/05/10.

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