Social media ‘staged’ at conventions?

Originally published August 28, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — The omnipresence of Facebook, Google, FourSquare and other social media at the GOP convention is billed as a way Americans can interact with pols from afar — but some say it’s now just part of the political theater.

Paul Ryan’s Facebook campaign page featured a posting Tuesday of a video titled “The Cheesehead Revolution has hit Tampa!” And at nearly the same time Mitt Romney was being nominated from the floor, the GOP presidential and vice presidential candidates both tweeted, “If you have a business and you started it, you did build it. And you deserve credit for that.”

Even the purveyors of the major social media outlets acknowledge that the seemingly altruistic goal — to use social media to connect the public to its leaders — can be manipulated just like many of the other tools of modern politics, from TV debates to attack ads.

“More and more politicians are getting more used to being careful in terms of what they say and what their post is to make sure they think through it just like anybody has to think through what they say when they’re in a public setting representing their company,” said Katie Harbath, who leads Facebook’s Republican outreach.

What’s changed, especially at this Republican National Convention, is the definition of public. The GOP has touted the “Convention without walls” meme in countless press releases and media accounts, but perhaps “Convention without backstages” might be more appropriate.

“We are under constant pressure to tweet, to tell everyone what we’re doing,” said a Republican House candidate from Florida who didn’t want to be named. “Everywhere we are, we’re on. It’s exhausting. But of course I check what I’m saying, how I look, anywhere that someone might be watching me.”

Consider the Conversation Room that Google has built backstage for convention speakers to “relax” in: Its actual purpose, Google spokeswoman Samantha Smith admitted, is to encourage them to tweet, post to Facebook and jump into a soundproof booth where they can engage with constituents or fans back home via a Google+ hangout.

Also, FourSquare started a special convention relationship with Time Magazine in which Time helps the app let users know the location of prominent people.

The idea is to create a sense of intimacy. The result, though, is a constant state of playing politician and ever-carefully scripting what the public can see.

“Certainly, people and voters and activists are expecting an incredible amount of transparency at events like this and from the candidates,” said Vincent Harris, a prominent GOP digital strategist. “It almost borders on voyeurism. It’s almost like we’re heading towards a place where everything is constantly streaming.”

Twitter spokesman Adam Sharp said that’s a tradeoff for something important, a closer connection between politicians and their constituents.

“Is it going to be like you went over to their house for dinner? No,” Sharp said. “But it’s definitely a move in the right direction.”

Harbath, too, believes the good outweighs the bad.

“It’s more real because you have candidates now posting and saying things on their pages like normal human beings,” she said. “When Sen. [John] Cornyn earlier this year posted he’s going to Costco and he always hates how he ends up buying things he didn’t intend to buy, that was real.”

And Harris rejected the notion that social media sells a false bill of goods.
“Is it a false sense of intimacy? No, because I don’t know how much more intimate or real you can get than having a camera in the front of the stage and the back of the stage and following Romney up into his bus and being in his bus with him,” Harris said.

Some pols, though, can self-censor on social media when they have to.

Wildcard Chris Christie created a new Twitter account just for followers of his keynote convention address Tuesday night. He did this so as not to confuse it with the tweets he reserves for New Jersey residents, including one from last week linked to a video called “Why The Hell Would I Want To Leave?”

All of this is why Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who isn’t running for reelection, doesn’t tweet.

“I believe in making considered statements,” he said. “And there are times I want to be alone.”


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