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Many political scientists, including Daniel Kreiss in his book, Taking Our Country Back, site Obama’s use of new media campaign tactics in the 2008 presidential election as a main source of his success.  Interestingly, this changing landscape of campaigning that in large part led to the 2008 Republican defeat also cultivated one of the largest intraparty, conservative social movements: the Tea Party.  This post aims to show that the Tea Party was able to reach high levels of attention through forming themselves to the decentralized structure of new media communication.

A Washington Post investigation in October 2010, arguably at the height of the Tea Party’s popularity, found that there were a total of only about 650 Tea Party groups nationally (1).  Even more, a CBS/New York Times poll completed in April 2010 found that although 18% of the population identified as Tea Party supporters (2), only one in five of them had actually attended an event or donated money (1).  But even with these small active numbers, Pew Research Center studies show that the movement gained a lot of traction with the media especially during tax day protests in 2009 and 2010, making up 7% and 6% of the newshole respectively (3).  It even gained the public support of Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.  So how did such a realistically small segment of the population gain such widespread publicity and traction in the media?

Let’s start from the beginning.

The beginning of the Tea Party as its known today is typically traced back to the explosion of a rant against the Obama administration’s mortgage plan by reporter Rick Santelli.

“Operating at first through the social-networking site Twitter, conservative bloggers and Republican campaign veterans took the opportunity offered by the Santelli rant to plan protests under the newly minted ‘Tea Party’ name.  As seasoned activists organized local rallies, the video of Santelli quickly scaled the media pyramid, headlining the popular conservative website, The Drudge Report; being widely re-televised; and receiving public comment within 24 hours from White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs” (1).  The trajectory of this rant foreshadowed the potential success of the Tea Party itself.  Although the immediate circulation of the video was decentralized and largely existing within the conservative “blogoshpere,” it was something to fill the void in the 24-hour news cycles, thus pulling it up to national attention.

Applying new media to campaign tactics in this way allows for multiple new ladders to help “scale the media pyramid.”

The first campaign to realize this and actually apply new media tactics was during Howard Dean’s run for presidency in 2004.  His staffers, many of whom were young and technologically savvy, focused on creating networks to connect those on all corners of the internet and country.  Tools like DeanSpace, DeanLink, and the already established MoveOn allowed for the “creation, cultivation, and maintenance of ties with supporters that staffers could mobilize for collective social and symbolic action,” (4).  Many of the successful tools used in the Obama campaign, such as My.BarackObama.com, an interface for campaign supporters to create online identities, connect with other supporters, and publicize their campaign activity, were engendered from Dean’s campaign.

mybo-1

These networks that provided new avenues for political activism and participation essentially worked to mimic a grassroots movement, but with Obama’s staff still maintaining control of the message.  “Supporters moved through the symbolic worlds that staffers designed to help create an “experience” of Obama’s candidacy, the moment in history, and the stakes for America. The New Media Division had marked autonomy to craft and control this experience within the larger campaign’s messaging strategy,” (4).  This process recalls the spread of the Santelli video.  The centralized leaders only had to pump the blood into the right veins and let the video spread accordingly.

Cup_of_Tea

This is how the Tea Party has continued to run and maintain its widespread publicity, by maintaining a decentralized support and communication base that is structured to be apparent on new media even though the depth may not necessarily be there.  The movement took cues from My.BarackObama.com and began using Ning, a social media networking tool.  “Template Ning networks provided the right with the ability to quickly assemble Tea Party groups without the appearance of top-heavy Republican partisanship,” (5).   With Ning connecting supporters across the country, the Tea Party was able to make use of more common new media and seemingly grassroots tactics to thrust their views into the spotlight.

One example is the website Big Government, a branch of the Tea Party new media movement, releasing a series of viral videos trying to discredit the federally funded, liberal advocacy group ACORN.  Eventually, ACORN lost its federal funding and disbanded in March of 2010.  With feats like this and an increasing presence on Twitter and smaller new media sites, the Tea Party was able to work its way up to mainstream media.  However, media coverage is one thing and actual effect on government is entirely different.  One of the most commonly sited successes of the Tea Party movement is when it was able to use the grassroots internet network to get Scott Brown elected as a senator of Massachusetts (6).

After being publicly backed by the Tea Party, Brown raised over $12 million online in only 18 days, not to mention the news making single-day “moneybomb” where he raised $1.3 million.  “Ironically, this torrent of online money, likely the largest for any nonpresidential candidate ever, came not in response to a top-down ‘ask’ from the campaign, but emerged spontaneously after bloggers noticed a (partly inaccurate) article about the national GOP committees not investing in Brown’s candidacy,” (7).  This paired with the “Twitter-bombs,” a centralized attack on Brown’s opponent spread the decentralized networks, made way for Brown’s win and increased media coverage for the Tea Party (6).  Although this type of success has not become the norm, the alignment of the Tea Party’s structure to that of new media allowed the movement to create a situation where they turned their bark into a bite.  With mainstream media perpetuating the pretense of depth the movement puts forth online, the Tea Party was essentially able to act as their own gatekeepers.

Works Cited

(1)  Williamson, Vanessa, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin. “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.” Perspective on Politics 9.1 (2011): 25-43. Web.

(2) “Tea Party Supporters: Who They Are and What They Believe.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

(3) “Media Coverage of Occupy vs. Tea Party.” Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

(4) Kreiss, Daniel. Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Sakai. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

(5) Fang, Lee. The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

(6) Wiley, John Scott. “The Decentralized Social Movement: How the Tea Party Gained Relevancy in the New Media Era.” Diss. Georgetown, 2011. Proquest. UMI Dissertations Publishing. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

(7) “Lessons of the Mass. Revolt: Feel The anger.” New York Post Lessons of the Mass Revolt Feel Theanger Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

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