Every day we hear about the influence that social media has on political campaigns. The rise of this medium of communication has (arguably) made it possible for citizens to participate in the public debate with government officials, the media and civil society groups (the 3 traditional participants, according to Jürgen Habermas, that make up the public sphere.) I will highlight 3 effects that viral content have had on political campaigns by analyzing political gaffes: (1) more sophisticated communications teams (2) the length at which public debate is driven by the gaffe and (3) campaign rhetoric.
Neha Prakash researched political hype, gaffes and the effect of social media on both of these. She is a contributor for “Politics Transformed,” a special report by Mashable that focuses on how campaigns have changed in the digital age. She talked with scholars about the possibility that a faux pas could effect the outcome of the race. None of the scholars believe that one has affected or will affect a candidate’s chances of election; however, Robert Cropf – political science professor at St. Louis University – believes that one “big kahuna gaffe” is possible and can jeopardize a politician’s career.
Political gaffes are not a knew occurrence, but social media and the rise of the internet makes it more likely that a candidate’s misstep will get noticed. Just because a candidate slips-up does not mean it will effect his or her election chances; however, gaffes are monitored by voters and can even help a campaign enforce the narrative of his or her opponent. Prakash then argues the rise of social media has led to more sophisticated communications teams that focus on digital media in order to keep a close watch on what voters are saying about the candidates.
Arguably one of the biggest slip-ups of the 2012 campaign (thus far) is Mitt Romney’s statement about the “47%” that was uncovered by Mother Jones. Throughout her article, Prakash cites sources that claim social media has not replaced the mainstream media as watchdog. John Sides, author of the blog The Monkey Cage, said social media only increases the amount of time that a gaffe is circulated, and that there is no evidence that they effect the outcome of an election. Robert Cropf rebuts this claim and says social media decreases the amount of time a political blunder remains in the public eye because of the fast-paced society the internet has created. Either way, Mother Jones posted the video about the “47%” on September 17, and Obama mentioned the remark in the second presidential debate on October 16, almost 1 month later.
The longevity of Romney’s claim that he can’t win over “47% of the country” is counter to what Cropf believes about the length of time that a gaffe circulates. After the first presidential debate, pundits like Chris Matthews questioned why Obama failed to mention the 47% remark. Rush Limbaugh even analyzed why Obama did not mention it during the debate. This is a prime example of how a video creating buzz on the internet can affect what the media chooses to report. Not only did the media grasp the story and run with it, the remark has affected the rhetoric of the debate. In the second debate, Romney chose to say he cares about “100% of the nation” while President Obama mentioned the 47% in his closing remarks.
Gaffes are a big part of election season because many wait for the next candidate to slip. The rise of social media has made it easier to uncover a candidate’s missteps and dig up past speeches and blunders. Though research shows that these slip-ups do not matter when it comes to election day, it is still important to the candidates to remain as politically correct as possible. The increased probability of a misstep emerging has effected in more sophisticated communications teams, the amount of time voters talk about the gaffe and campaign rhetoric.