January 12th, 2016

Campaigning in the Digital Age

[Originally appearing in Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government textbook, 2014]

Well, I was disappointed again this year in our inability to come to grasp the issues on the daily broadcasts, on the evening news.” — Walter Cronkite, 1976

Get there firstest with the mostest.” — any journalist, 2014

Technology has increased the pace of political coverage to such dizzying speeds, you have to wonder what the newscaster known as the “Most Trusted Man in America” would think about present-day campaigns. Back in 1988, the presidential race between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis was notable for its debut of the TV “sound bite,” while the use of fax machines (remember those?) by Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 was seen as revolutionary at the time. Skip ahead eight years to 2000, and the power of the internet first manifested itself in the form of instant fundraising power for GOP primary challenger John McCain, while two election cycles later in 2008, Facebook updates were all the rage for any and every aspiring elected official.

But the name of the game today? Twitter. More than four out of five people between the ages of 18-29 own smartphones, and nearly half of that cohort gets their news through Twitter, the 140-character messaging application whose popularity has skyrocketed from 100K tweets per quarter in 2008 to over 500 million a day in 2013. The immediacy of Twitter’s real-time reporting and opinion-framing has shaken the foundation of journalism — even venerable institutions such as the New York Times now see themselves as much more than a newspaper; with round-the-clock web-based updates, the Times is more akin to a radio or television station. If Cronkite were around today, he’d likely have his own Twitter feed — there’s no way he’d stay relevant if people had to wait until the evening news for his thoughts on a story.

Few would argue against the value of up-to-the-second news, and Twitter has excelled at opening up the political world to voices beyond the entrenched Washington press corps. However, to its detractors, Twitter is also a cauldron of immediate soundbite commentary — the result of which has helped to not only further polarize the American public, but also drastically reduced the quality of the coverage of electoral campaigns. Gone are the days when seasoned reporters would “ride the bus” with candidates and discuss policy with them over dinners; with every reporter hungry for a gaffe that they can promote as a newsworthy story, campaigns have predictably begun to insulate politicians from the mainstream press.

In addition, with people naturally gravitating towards the tweets of those already in their ideological camps, Twitter serves as an “echo chamber” for all involved, particularly when it comes to subjects about which people feel passionately. If one is strongly in favor of gun control or the right to bear arms, it’s a safe bet that they will also receiving news “commentary” from those who reinforce said beliefs in their Twitter feeds — resulting in a disconnect between shared Twitter circles and public opinion. This may be giving people exactly what they want to hear… but does it improve the quality of discourse?

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/7297541/Twitter-users-send-50-million-tweets-per-day.html

https://blog.twitter.com/2013/new-tweets-per-second-record-and-how

http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/mobile-technology-fact-sheet/

http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/8-key-takeaways-about-social-media-and-news/

http://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/d80_hamby.pdf

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Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.

In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.

Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.