If you ever played the game, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, you know that Albert Einstein invented a machine to change the weather. It was a Weather Machine (or something to that effect) capable of destroying your enemy’s units and buildings. It wasn’t the best weapon you could get, but if you had it you could tilt the game in your favor. If Albert Einstein were a lesser man he would have done so in real life. If he were alive today he would be a staunch advocate of social media. Why? For politicians today there is a sort of machine that exists, it’s called the Internet.
It’s hard to deny the influence of social media in politics. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both announced their candidacies for President in 2008 on Youtube. Barack Obama’s campaign was defined by its ability to turn the young, the media hungry, and web savvy away from apathy and dejected cynicism, and into avid supporters that propelled his campaign into the white house.
Social Media is a kind of softball for smart and pragmatic politicians looking for low hanging fruit. With the ability to reach millions at low costs compared to traditional media like television, print, and radio, it’s a no-brainer. For media hungry politicians like Sarah Palin, who perhaps has a greater addiction to Twitter and Facebook than the average over-caffeinated High School teenager, social media is a godsend. It keeps them connected to their followers at all times, the die-hard fans and supporters who go to rallies, who call up radio shows and who talk obsessively at dinner parties.
But lets face it, politics is about money. The more money you can raise the more likely you are to win. It means better television interviews, better media placements and of course a better campaign manager who can make you a better candidate, which will make you look better in the media. Clearly social media is great way to get people interested very early on in the campaign process. A candidate who has an effective social media strategy, popular videos on Youtube, a ton of followers on Twitter, and a strong web presence, is at an advantage. That popular candidate has an advantage because, clearly, no one ever wants to bet on a losing horse.
Cynicism aside, social media is in a way changing how politics works, or at the very least challenging the current system; highlighting serious chinks in its armor, and disparities abound. In 2009, Twitter had its big coming out party on the back of the protest surrounding the Presidential elections in Iran. Despite heavy censorship of Internet Service Providers by the government, protesters staged an effective protest not only in the streets, but also in the global community. Not so much through traditional media outlets, but through Twitter. Newspapers and cable news stations reported on tweets and not sources in Iran.
In 2010, China shutdown Google, because Google was too democratic in showing search results critical of the politburo members Zhou Yongkang, and Li Changchun. We know this now thanks to another variation of social media, WikiLeaks, which is, according to every traditional media outlet and traditional politician, the devil incarnate.
So, is social media changing the political climate? The longer answer is maybe and only time can tell how effective it will be. There are numerous micro-donation sites that are dedicated to making real change happen but they represent small drops in the bucket compared to the prevailing trend of media hungry politicians. These drops represent a relative minority who have always been present, maybe as brick and mortar non-profits and NGO’s prior to social media.
But at the present time social media is a great forum for debate, promotion and fund-raising. If that constitutes a change in the political climate then yes social media is changing how we vote and debate and fund political campaigns and causes. But if we’re talking about a real change as in significant changes that lead to more effective government, and better policy, then no. Facebook, Twitter and Youtube may only serve as a distraction from the bigger picture.
Thierry Godard is a writer based in New York City. He is a guest blogger for My Dog Ate My Blog and a writer on accredited online universities for Guide to Online Schools.