There are few things more truly noble than a career in politics. I will concede that I have always been an idealist when it has come to those who devote their life to public service in one way or another. Perhaps it is the reason that West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant television series about the going ons of the fictional Bartlett White House, has always been my favourite show. Perhaps I watched Mr Smith Goes To Washington just one too many times and teared up at the climactic filibuster, cheering for the beleaguered senator as he gives his impassioned speech. I’m sure that this means that I’ll never truly be happy at any mortal politician who is unable to come close to the fictional political heroes that adorn my list of those whom I admire. Politicians have always been a step above mere citizens. Despite the fact that they work for us (being paid both in a salary and in votes) they’ve always appeared somewhat detached from the rest of society. That, however, has all begun to change thanks to social media.
Earlier this week Facebook uploaded a ‘how-to’ guide for members of the 113th Congress. It includes such basics as ‘how to set up a Facebook page’ and how to get their profile verified by Facebook (Facebook has a special email address where the Congressional team contacts the company). The guide tells Congressional staffers to create a comments policy outlining what language will, and will not, get commenters banned and deleted. It is now standard for any political candidate, running for President or Student Council, to have a Facebook page. It is the way that citizens can stay in touch with their political representative, pose questions to them, demand a response and to understand more about why they are casting a particular vote or hold a particular position. I blogged earlier about the role that social media played in the most recent election but the role that Facebook plays in politics extends beyond a mere electoral cycle. It has become an integral part of the way that politicians are presenting themselves.
Social media has allowed politicians to connect with their constituents like never before. For years politicians were bound by their geographic location and whether or not they had a friendly relationship with the media. Now they can answer Facebook questions in Washington (or London or Canberra) whilst their citizens sit home in their electorate. It also allows politicians to get their point of view across without running costly ad campaigns. The cost of Facebook ads are significantly less than their television or newspaper equivalent and you can effectively target them to your desired age group and people with a high level of interest (or low level of interest) in politics.
But as powerful a feature as social media may be for politicians it can also harm them significantly. The danger of viral videos is that they may, in fact, go viral. There are few more examples of a horrible viral video than that of Todd Akin and his comment that those who were victims of ‘legitimate rape‘ were unable to be impregnated. Akin said these comments in an interview and within hours they had spread across the world. They outraged pretty much everyone on both the right and the left and Akin’s campaign was fatally wounded. He lost his seat.
Yet it’s not just misspoken words that can end a political career but mistyped letters. In May 2011 US Congressman Anthony Weiner tweeted a link to a photo of his penis in boxer shorts to a young woman. It is believed that he meant to send the link within a Direct Message but forgot to type ‘D’ before the tweet and so the link was sent publicly. Over the next several weeks Weiner was hounded by the media and eventually resigned from Congress.
Social media has brought us closer than ever to our politicians. It has allowed us to approach them, question them and to see behind the scenes of their electoral offices. Truly there is no going back. As social media changes society so it will change politics. It will continue to be used as a fundraising tool and as a propaganda tool for both up and coming and veteran political operatives. Facebook and Twitter will be the first port of call for any and all politicians for the next half decade.