In “Acting in the Public Sphere: The 2008 Obama Campaign’s Strategic Use of New Media to Shape Narratives of the Presidential Race,” author Daniel Kreiss quotes one prior Obama staffer as having the following to say about the online campaign’s tactics:
… you just have to understand that anyone who is a smart campaigner utilizes literally any tool they can to win. During the second half [of the primaries] we would create anonymous YouTube videos … This is the part of the landscape of online campaigning where there is infinite possibility for the dark arts, frankly. Because you can create a YouTube video and just upload it anonymously and it could be a devastating video that is completely untraceable back to the campaign.
The emphasis in that quote is mine. It’s certainly no surprise that shady tactics are being used in a presidential campaign—that is almost par for the course. What is surprising, and increasingly rare, is to see such a direct admission of said behind-the-scenes actions, despite the fact the quoted staffer isn’t named.
It seems we live in an era of increasing secrecy within politics, an era wherein Super PACs rule campaigns thanks to Citizens United and the rise of so-called “dark money” donations—that is, money coming from donors who don’t legally have to be disclosed to the public. It is estimated that Super PACs spent more than $600 million dollars in the 2012 election cycle, and The Huffington Post estimates “dark money” donations accounted for approximately $416 million dollars in 2012.
In more recent times, the 2014 midterm election was deemed the most expensive in history, coming in at approximately $3.77 billion dollars, according to the OpenSecrets.org blog, a non-partisan publication of the Center For Responsive Politics. Further, they report that “dark money” accounted for more than $200 million dollars in 2014. The blog also reported that there were fewer donors in the 2014 election than the preceding election for the first time in American history.
The existence of “dark money” itself proves that transparency in politics is more favorable than secrecy, so why do things seem to be moving further into the shadows, and not just in terms of money?
In his article, Kreiss refers to something called the “netroots,” a term that describes the evolution of “an overarching identity for a heterogeneous group of activists gathering online who see themselves involved in a common political enterprise to reshape the Democratic party.”
Kreiss goes on to detail the ways in which Obama campaign staffers utilized prominent members and sites within this ‘netroots’ movement to distribute or promote materials that either boosted Obama’s campaign or tore down Hillary Clinton’s during the primary election. Staffers sent videos or exclusive tidbits to sites among the netroots movement like DailyKos.com, which allowed other users with or without notability or credibility to help them spread throughout the blogosphere via upvoting and sharing.
Viral videos and articles aren’t a new phenomenon, but using them for political gains is.
Another anonymous Obama staffer in Kreiss’ article is quoted as saying:
… the internet shows that when a coordinated group of people get together they can build immense power. This coordinated group of people can make things go insanely viral.
In the past, video clips and soundbites that have gone viral have ruined campaigns, no doubt to the glee of their opponents. Take the infamous “Dean Scream” video, for instance, which instantly made the rounds on the internet and eventually landed on TVs everywhere after major news outlets picked up on the blog chatter about it. This clip almost singlehandedly unraveled the campaign of Howard Dean, who dropped out of the race shortly after. The viral nature of the internet evidently can have influence in the outcome of elections, for better or for worse.
By fostering symbiotic relationships with outlets like DailyKos, who were given exclusive content created by staffers and allowed to disseminate it as their own work, Obama staffers were able to give the content the appearance of credibility and maintain the illusion of impartiality without exposing themselves, the true authors. All of this in the hopes of the content going viral and spreading to the 6 o’clock nightly news—the holy grail of exposure.
The American public has seen record disapproval numbers and levels of mistrust toward its government in recent years. This is due to a number of factors, including the 2008 financial meltdown, the debate over President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Edward Snowden’s leaks and the most recent Congress’ inability to get much of anything done, among many others.
Studies conducted by The Pew Research Center in 2010 show a fluctuating yet steadily declining level of trust in government among the American people, from 68% during the Kennedy/Johnson administration all the way down to 22% during the Obama/Biden administration.
So much of what the public sees and is told about candidates and elected officials is carefully crafted in secret, scripted down to the smallest possible detail in an effort to sell a candidate as being truthful, honest and fair, like a neighbor they can trust with their spare house key. Issues of policy and a candidate’s intentions upon taking office are frequently brushed aside in favor of personal characteristics—is she religious? If so, what’s her religion (and it better be the same one as mine)? Is she an Average Joe? How many kids does she have? Is she the type of candidate that would hold and kiss my baby at a rally?
Yet, as Jeffrey Alexander argues in “The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power,” whether or not a candidate actually embodies the characteristics of truth, honesty and fairness doesn’t seem to matter all that much:
… it is less a matter of being those qualities than of seeming to be them, of embodying truth, narrating honesty, projecting fairness, and doing so in a persuasive way. Being truthful, honest, and fair are discursive claims; whether these claims take root is a matter of performative success.
As is popularly said, candidates aren’t born, they’re created.
That’s true—they’re created by advisors, campaign managers and staffers who don’t attach their name or reputation to the content they produce to represent a candidate or to smear an opponent. In order to keep the candidate and the campaign’s reputation clean, they operate in the dark, outside of the public eye, and rely on those with public influence to spread their message and to assist in selling the American public that their candidate embodies the qualities of truth, honesty and fairness —not the other guy.
No wonder Americans are disillusioned! We’ve created a political environment that encourages dark, well, everything.
How can anyone believe a candidate embodies truth, honesty and fairness, or any other positive attributes for that matter, when everything about the candidate’s daily operations is constructed and rehearsed? How can one be sure that the “painting” of a candidate or their opponent is accurate when they can’t identify where the messages they’ve received came from, who created them or who paid for them?
The simple answer is that they can’t, and that’s a problem. If trust is ever to return to the kind of numbers seen during the Kennedy administration or higher, real truth, honesty and fairness need to take center stage.
Expecto Patronum, indeed.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. : Oxford University Press, 2010-11-10. Oxford Scholarship Online. 2012-05-24. Date Accessed 20 Feb. 2015.
Blumenthal, Paul. Dark Money’ In 2012 Election Tops $400 Million, 10 Candidates Outspent By Groups With Undisclosed Donors. The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 02 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
Choma, Russ. Final Tally: 2014’s Midterm Was Most Expensive, With Fewer Donors. Opensecrets.org. Center for Responsive Politics, 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
Choma, Russ. Money Won on Tuesday, But Rules of the Game Changed. Opensecrets.org. Center for Responsive Politics, 05 Nov. 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
Kreiss, Daniel. Acting in the Public Sphere: The 2008 Obama Campaign’s Strategic Use of New Media to Shape Narratives of the Presidential Race. Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change 33 (2012): n. pag. Web.
Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Pew Research Center, 18 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.