By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
12:40 PM EST, December 3, 2012
From #SaveBigBird and #womeninbinders, to #Lauerfail and #DrunkDianeSawyer, it seems like we are awash in stories with hashtags these days --stories about the 140-character wonders of Twitter and their impact on media and politics.
And while there is no shortage of reporting on the latest record number of tweets on any given topic, it feels like the faster the stories about social media come, the further we fall behind the curve of understanding how they are shaping the culture or what they might be trying to tell us about ourselves. We chronicle and marvel at the numbers, but maybe we are missing the meanings of this latest development in media consciousness.
Last week, President Barack Obama, who wiped the floor with GOP challenger Mitt Romney in social media during the election, raised his game to a new level when he took to Twitter in his fight with conservatives in Congress over what to about the so-called fiscal cliff. Just as Team Obama effectively used social media to get re-elected, he is now trying to use it to govern -- right down to the level of creating and trying to drive folks to hashtags.
"Call your members of Congress. Write them an email. Tweet it using the hashtag #My2K," Obama said in one of his own tweets.
And his budget-battle message -- that it will cost middle-class families more than $2,000 each a year if the Bush-era tax cuts are not extended -- launched an instant Twitter firefight that included some surprisingly effective pushback from the right.
"This is the first time I have ever seen a public official drive a conversation in social media to this extent," says Lauren Ashburn, editor-in-chief of The Daily Download, a website focused on new media and politics. "And he's able to do that, because he's amassed this social media machine over the last eight years, and he's now using it to govern, to persuade people to his point of view. It's like the machine that propelled him into office never stopped."
Ashburn, a former managing editor at USA Today, says Obama broke new ground Wednesday in placing Twitter at the core of his strategy to create a consensus on keeping tax cuts for the middle class while increasing the rate for those making over $250,000 a year.
"We've seen people play around on Twitter and Facebook and social media to try and affect social policy and change," she says. "And it's worked in small test cases. But never like this. When President Obama stood in the White House and said, 'Tweet with hashtag My2K,' it immediately became a top trending on Twitter. That's just incredible."
William Powers, director of The Crowdwire, a project analyzing the role of social media in 2012 presidential race, saw it as a breakthrough moment as well, and he emailed all his colleagues at Bluefin Labs, a Boston-based firm specializing in social media metrics, about it Wednesday.
"And I said, 'Hey, look at this, the election's over and Obama's recognizing that social media can be used for more than just getting re-elected. Here he's using it to push a policy ... And I saw it as a signal that the political leaders' use of social media had matured a lot just in the last year."
Powers, a former reporter for the Washington Post, is to the best of my knowledge the first analyst to recognize and explain the power such Twitter hashtags have in setting the agenda for mainstream media.
In an interview following the second presidential debate in October, Powers told me that he saw a "new symbiosis between Twitter and the news media" in the use of hashtags based on things said in the debates.
The result, as he explained it, was the emergence of a near-instant news cycle driven by editors seeing hashtags go viral and then ordering up stories based on the hashtags -- in effect, validating those hashtags and shaping the news budgets for everything from cable and network TV programs to websites and morning newspapers.
"It's like a new cycle is happening that we don't even have a word for yet," he said. "It's changing the whole process."
Powers says everything that he's seen since has only re-enforced his notion of the way Twitter is re-arranging the media and cultural landscape.
"I think it's really re-shaping the cycle, because we've now got this line or wire into the public with Twitter that we never had before," he explains.
"So when a hashtag crops up like bindersfullofwomen or Big Bird during the debate, and there are so many of them, that is an authentic, public response to a significant event and that is instantly usable by a journalist," he insists. "And I don't think there's been anything comparable in the history of elections. We've normally had to wait days or even a week for a poll to tell us how the public perceived an event, and now we can get it immediately on Twitter."
In addition to Obama using the hashtag to push policy Wednesday, Powers also saw significance in the instant Twitter response by the Republicans
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, bought the hashtag My2K as a promoted tweet, which means that it appeared at the top of the list when someone searched the term. The president's tweet, meanwhile, appeared beneath it. If the Heritage Foundation didn't exactly shanghai Obama's hashtag, it did a pretty good job of mixing the message.
Speaker of the House John Boehner and other GOP members joined Heritage on Twitter attacking the president's budget plan while using his hashtag.
During a 24-hour period starting Wednesday, 53 percent of the tweets using the hashtag were "negative with criticisms of Obama's tax and fiscal policies and the hashtag campaign," according to the social media analyst firm Crimson Hexagon.
Measuring 102,395 tweets, Crimson Hexagon found only 21 percent were positive, while 26 percent were simply "sharing the news" and not taking sides.
"You blinked, and all of a sudden, the Republicans had a response -- in the same platform," Powers says.
"There was this sponsored hashtag from Heritage that was there really quickly, and Republicans in the media and in Congress were responding to it and saying, 'Wait a minute, Obama's not telling the whole story.' And it was happening on Twitter with the hashtag itself becoming sort of the center around which the argument revolves."
And that in-Twitter GOP response was in such stark contrast to the way the right was dominated by Obama's social media operation during the campaign. Typical of that dominance was the fact that even though Romney clearly won the first debate in TV terms over a distracted Obama, the GOP candidate came out the loser when his comments about cutting funding for "Sesame Street" became the object of ridicule and rejection in millions of tweets under such hashtags as #SaveBigBird.
Those anti-Romney hashtags -- which were treated in the press as vox populi even though Team Obama could well have been playing a role in creating and promoting them -- subsequently drove continuing coverage of the debates and the campaigns across all media. Does anyone really know the extent of Obama's social media team in shaping the Twitter conversation around those debates?
That's a lot of power for hashtags, particularly when what little we do know about Twitter says its users are not representative of the American public.
Only 16 percent of those who use the Internet use Twitter, according to "Social Media and Political Engagement," a project of the "Pew Internet & American Life Project" released in October.
And that 16 percent of Internet users leans liberal by a margin of 3 to 2, Democrats versus Republicans. In terms of ideology, it's even further to the left: 5 to 2 "liberal" versus "conservative."
The skew is greatest, not surprisingly, in age, with 32 percent of Internet users between the ages of 18 and 29 using Twitter, more than the combined number of the next three older age groups, which range from 30 to 65-plus.
That generational breakout certainly helps explain why Twitter attacks on ABC anchorwoman Diane Sawyer NBC "Today" host Matt Lauer seemed so nasty and focused on age. (Sawyer was pilloried for lack of focus on election night, while Lauer's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade coverage was marred by mispronunciations.) But I didn't see the skewed age of Twitter users mentioned prominently in any of the many mainstream stories on Sawyer and Lauer spurred by the Twitter takedowns.
On Wednesday, the conservatives in Congress showed that they learned something about Twitter from the pasting Romney took in social media.
Now it's time for the press as well to catch up with the unlearned lessons of social media from the 2012 election. It's time to get past the gee-whiz reporting and go inside the numbers, demographics and political operatives trying to manipulate those hashtags. It's time to report on social media in an enlightening and responsible way even as we grope our way through the fog of massive media change in our lives.
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