Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Coming Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy

Professor Jacobson at Legal Insurrection continues his posting streak with a killer look at Upworthy, the newest liberal social-media power-house. Upworthy is a social-media savvy viral-story vector that is designed to spread its (liberal--they make no bones about it) message through Facebook and Twitter (and anything else they can get their hands on). He compares it to Buzzfeed Politics which is also viral and also liberal--and also very, very freakin' effective.

Conservatives, he writes, are losing the social media war:
We are losing the fight to the lowest of low information voters*, who are pushed toward a liberal agenda by very smart and talented people who understand the power of social media in a way we don’t.
His analysis is dead on--the site is sophisticated and designed to, amongst other things, collect email addresses and make it super-easy to spread messages with grabby headlines, video content, and catchy sound-bite style information (one that caught my eye was a tribute to Tesla--something I can almost always get behind).

He's not the only one who feels this way:'s Liberty Chick writes: Why LOLcats Matter in Politics:
Our existence is about more than just the issue of the day that consumes our attention, or the candidate we're all fighting over today. Our existence depends upon weaving technology, new media and culture into our messaging and into our mechanisms. That's infinitely more than just "incorporating social media" or "bridging the digital divide." It requires creating a culture unto its own.
What's Interesting About This?
There are a couple of angles to this story that are interesting. The first is that if, indeed, Republicans (or conservatives, if you will) are losing the social-media messaging war, why is that? Is it because they simply "do not understand" the Facebook and the Twitter? Or is it something else?

The second interesting question is "What did Liberals do to 'win it'" (or to, at least, start winning it). The article suggests that after the Democrat's 2002 defeat they created a "permanent progressive infrastructure" which is new media, bloggers, activists, and technological innovation. This, she says, is the enabler for their current assault against all things conservative. Is this for real? Or conspiracy thinking?

Why Can't Republicans Do Social Media?
It was only a little while ago--around the time of Bush being reelected--that Republicans were trumpeting the death of the Mainstream Media and the birth of the new media exemplified in its glory as: This is a full-spectrum alternate-media outlet on the web. They had XM-Radio presence, a cadre of bloggers, they even sent Joe the Plumber to Israel to do some entertaining interviews. As far as conservatives in 2004 were concerned they were the spry, agile mammals and CBS was the aging dinosaur.

Today, apparently, it's different: although the conservative blogosphere is quite healthy (I'd say) and whether or not FOX News is number one today, and although conservatives dominate Talk Radio, it appears that the new, new mammals--the viral story machines have crawled out of the ocean and are poised to take over the land.

How could that be?

I think the answer is quite simple: the Republican base is old (or, if not old, at least older). What the Conservative alternative media is missing is NOT message--nor, specifically--readership. Their output is professional. Their message discipline is excellent: they are crafting arguments and talking points with the best of them. Popular conservative bloggers have no problem getting air-time on major outlets. Elected officials take them seriously.

What they are missing is the 'virality'--the ability to get stories to "go viral" being spread through Facebook and Twitter. Why is this? I think this is because (a) older people do not use Twitter and Facebook and, if they do they (b) use them differently than young people. A teenager may easily have 500+ friends. An older person? They might limit their use to their, you know, actual friends. A more mature Facebook user may actually set their privacy settings rather than defaulting to everyone or at least friends-of-friends.

A mature person (and, would this were more true) may not over-share on the political messages (I am one to talk, eh?). Furthermore, for the all-important click-throughs, there is probably a pretty steep age drop-off in who is most motivated by YouTube videos and cute kittens. I suspect the more conventional your job the less of that material actually makes it to your eyeballs.

In short: the Republicans are not losing the social media battle because they lack the message--they are losing it because they lack the target audience. I am not sure that Republican media vectors using the same techniques will work: it is possible that Obama won the youth vote because of the Republican positions (i.e. Republican approach to gay marriage) and not the other way around (young people are manipulated into liking gay marriage by Facebook and Twitter).

The Conspiracy Theory
It is certainly true that everyone in the game is trying to build a media machine, a wealthy donor base, technology enablers, and a get-out-the-vote volunteer network. This is politics 101 and each side can claim its own strategies and victories. For example, no one could look at the 2012 landscape and decide the Republicans were worse than the Democrats at getting large donations to Super PACs (what you would conclude with a close look was that Super PACs, across the board, were horribly inefficient in 2012).

You could also not have any kind of objective look at the two parties and say that the GOP is anywhere near the Democrats in terms of technology.

These are pretty uncontested objective statements--but what about the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy? Checking around through the links, I came to this:a PDF Transcript of a talk given in 2006 by Byron York to the Hudson Institute. He apparently saw it coming:
Version 1.0 was a very quick and dirty effort. I think they thought that if they just spent enough money, then Bush would go down. Version 2.0 is a much longer-term project, and I think that is what the Democracy Alliance is all about. They decided that instead of pouring cash into campaigns, they would put it into longer-term efforts – think tanks, leadership institutes, media monitoring organizations, and things like that. And you certainly saw this in the 2006 campaign. There were a number of Democrats who felt this quite a bit, because the big donors of 2004 gave relatively tiny amounts in 2006.
I can't verify whether this is true or not--or what the effects of it were--and I'm dubious that the new social media success stories are actually part of a decade-long plan that would somehow foresee them coming: Are Buzzfeed and Upworthy creations of this effort? I doubt it. Is there some innovation from a leadership institute or think tank that created Narwhal? I don't think so--I think that was an artifact of Big Data which is not especially connected to the Democratic position in 2006 or otherwise. But regardless, York's prediction that in the next election the Democrats would be far better organized was true--they were.

And it wasn't all about the money either. While Soros is definitely democratic and definitely rich, he's worth less than half a Koch brother and only very slightly more than one Sheldon Adelson. If there is a Vast Left Wing Conspiracy that is responsible for the new-media push it certainly can't be about raw funding.

The conspiracy part is said to be in the coordination--an effort involving Soros, Media Matters, Air America, and ... Michael Moore**.
At the time, York hadn't immediately realized what he'd stumbled onto. But he knew there were too many similar activities occurring for it NOT to be coordinated.
 Interestingly, as the article goes on to note, this was being done to counter the infrastructure in place for Conservatives (the article notes how groups like the Heritage Foundation provide material on demand to Fox News who, in turn, provides the messaging for elected officials--and has a training group called the Leadership Institute).

So, no: it isn't a conspiracy--if you take the links and data at face-value, it's an arms-race. Perhaps in the future these posts will be seen as the thought-leadership that created a Vast Right Wing Conspiracy of media and technology!

* As I've said before, the use of the term Low-Information-Voter by conservatives is ironic as just about every conservative media outlet be it FOX, Blogs, or radio held that Romney was equal or ahead in polling despite what the, erm, numbers conclusively said. While I know what Jacobson means, I would stop using "Low Information Voters" as a term for them until at least 2014.

** The idea that Moore or his "guerrilla" documentaries is relevant today seems naively quaint in light of the #1 2012 Documentary being Obama 2016 which claimed he was driven by an anti-colonialist mindset to humble America!

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