With just minutes to go before last night’s second presidential debate, the folks over at PolitiFact.com sent out the following tweet:
Are these memes distracting us from important topics within the national discussion, or are they simply a benign enabler of audience participation?"
— PolitiFact (@politifact) October 17, 2012
Three hours later, after the dust had settled in the Hofstra University auditorium, PolitiFact had published more than 50 tweets, each analyzing the truth value of a candidate’s comment or claim. Not to be outdone, FactCheck.org, the other major non-partisan fact checker, highlighted and evaluated a series of claims the two candidates were likely to make (based on recent public comments) even before the debate began on its companion website, FlackCheck.org.
And, while the debate was in full swing, the campaign staffs weren’t going to sit idly by and let their bosses do all the work. In the course of the debate, reporters could look down at their BlackBerries and find 13 emailed statements from the Romney camp and 29 from the Obama campaign.
And then, of course, there was the firestorm of memes (#bindersfullofwomen, for example) that flooded feeds into the morning.
All of this goes go to show that our political culture has transformed, seemingly overnight, into an instantaneous information marketplace. And there’s a glut on the market.
On one hand, that’s promising. There are now more ways for the general public to engage and inform itself than ever before. But, when is that engagement too much? When does it contribute more to distraction than deliberation?
From Rapid Response to Rabid Response
In 1992, when Bill Clinton’s campaign popularized the “rapid response” strategy to swiftly respond to misleading or unfavorable media coverage, the 24/7 media culture was still in its infancy. Cable news channels were a relatively new phenomenon, and the Internet was mostly just another platform for traditional media outlets. Netscape Navigator (the first popular browser) and full text search engines hadn’t yet been introduced, and blogs and other types of user-generated content wouldn’t hit the scene for another decade or so.
In the 20 years since the Clinton campaign introduced its “rapid response” strategies, the media universe has expanded significantly, and information is flying back and forth at warp speed. With so much information quite literally at our fingertips, media companies and campaigns are competing intensely to make their information important in the minds of news consumers and prospective voters, respectively. I’ve characterized this trend, in which political narratives are being told with heightened fervor across several media platforms, as a move from “rapid response” strategies to an era of “rabid response.”
This rabid response is evident in the barrage of tweets by fact-checkers and the rapid-fire email statements of the campaigns. But it’s also evident in CNN’s on-air meter that gauges instant reaction of undecided voters, or its post-debate snap polls, or its “poll of polls,” or in any of the media outlets that live-blogged or live-tweeted it.
This is more of an observation than a criticism, and most of us who work in or with the media are complicit in this trend. I myself, after the first presidential debate, hopped onto the Fox Business Network to provide analysis, and I’m currently working on a research project at the Annenberg Innovation Lab that conducts real-time political sentiment analysis on Twitter.
But, despite the pundits’ instant analysis and the campaign staffers’ attempt to steer the conversation, information is taking on a life of its own in a way that resists the “official” explanations by the media, or the competing narratives of the campaign. The Obama and Romney campaigns each tried to make their chosen Twitter hashtags a “thing.”
Shortly after Obama called Romney’s tax plan a “sketchy deal,” several members of his campaign staff all used the #sketchydeal hashtag in a seemingly coordinated way. And the Romney campaign used the #CantAfford4More hashtag in tweets that it paid to promote. Yet neither of these hashtags received nearly the traction of #bindersfullofwomen, which parodied Mitt Romney’s less-than-artful claim that he actively recruited female members of his cabinet when he was Massachusetts’ governor.
The “Binders Full of Women” meme spread swiftly, with a Facebook group gathering hundreds of thousands of “likes” within hours, and a “Binders Full of Women” Tumblr account publishing dozens of user-submitted mashups and cartoons. While some might dismiss memes like this — and the ones that arose during the first debate, like
SilentJimLehrer and BigBirdRomney — as simply good fun at the candidates’ expense, I wonder how much of the public discussion of the debates is displaced by the discussion of these side stories.
Will this emphasis on parodied soundbites encourage candidates to even further over-script their answers and avoid the types of candid statements that are more liable to be isolated from context and mocked? Are these memes distracting us from important topics within the national discussion, or are they simply a benign enabler of audience participation in a side conversation to that discussion? In an era of instantaneous information, are fast-forming themes and virally spread memes a contributor to — or a consequence of — the media culture of rabid response?
Let us know what you think in the comments below.
Mark Hannah is the political correspondent for MediaShift. As a Ph.D. fellow at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, Mark investigates the impact of emerging media on political knowledge and opinion. Mark began his career in politics and was a staffer on the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign. He has more recently done part-time work for the Obama-Biden campaign, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House. Between political campaigns, Mark worked in PR, conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, the advisory board of #Waywire (Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s social media startup), and was a research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He previously studied political communication at UPenn (BA) and Columbia University (MS). His personal website is www.mark-hannah.com, and he can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com. Follow Mark on Twitter: @ProfessorHannah