Do Boehner’s Taylor Swift GIFs Make Politics Any More Accessible?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Not long ago I wrote about what a big impact social media has made on politics and how political groups and leaders reach an audience. The White House makes good use of Tumblr and Twitter, politicians across parties have personal and professional Facebook pages and blogs, both used to inform or incite different groups. This change is not specific to the United States; politicians around the globe have adapted their government websites, profiles, and ways of putting out press releases to a more 20th-century-friendly electorate.

A recent post from House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) communications staff may have crossed the line from judging its audience to insulting it, with “12 Taylor Swift GIFs for you.” The 12 aforementioned Taylor Swift GIFs — short animated clips cut out of videos, common on Tumblr and social media — were supposed to explain the flaws in President Obama’s plan for giving American students two years of college education for free.

His post brought on the usual onslaught of Twitter arguments, but this one best summarized how obtusely he was pandering to a young audience, and how he might be almost too successful at fitting in:

Others were more likely to take the political argument with a smile, or ignore the GIFs in favor of taking on the argument itself, rather than the pop-star trivia. What music video or interview does this one come from? It’s likely some of these reactions fall along a partisan and age line. But I’d argue not all of them. As much as I love the idea of more affordable education, even I question the expense or at least the timing of that kind of commitment. Is that the sort of change that would be better implemented when taxpayers could more easily take the hit? The increase would be worthwhile, but the timing might be important — and might also help legislation of that sort get passed. It has wrinkles that need ironing out, and an opponent can certainly pinpoint those wrinkles. I would prefer to hear a stronger argument with more concrete alternative solutions to unequal access to education and opportunities. Solutions and answers instead of short choppy arguments with a dose of dance. Even without the GIFs and re-appropriated Taylor Swift, “Free?! Is he using magic money? Nothing is free. So we did a little math,” followed by a pretty picture to keep readers interesting is so condescending it hurts. And despite being as inundated — or perhaps over-inundated — with web culture, emoticons, and GIFs as the rest of the world, this particular post does feel a bit like brown-nosing the younger generation. Of course, Boehner isn’t alone in doing so. President Obama himself used GIFs when introducing a live Question and Answer session he had planned for his “steps to make student loan debt more affordable and manageable to repay,” published back in June of 2014. Now, his tactic may have been more the self-effacing and fatherly strategy; reaching out in the appropriate language of a different generation, but doing so in a self-aware way. That’s how he presented it — and the GIFs were of himself, not a different person whose views were not represented, but whose fame was a useful tool. So was Obama’s use more stomacheable? Yes. More subtle? Sure. Did it resort to taking advantage of free-use laws and a pop icon — whose real personal stance on the concept of free community college is a giant question mark at the moment? No. Though arguably that’s just the way GIFs are used. The fact that nothing but Taylor Swift was used perhaps complicated matters, but the truth is, to replicate how BuzzFeed or Tumblr makes use of GIFs, one almost has to do this, and it usually doesn’t suggest any political stance on the part of the character or star being used. While Obama’s may have come across more presidential, the fact is both his example and Boehner’s had similar goals. They both sought to make their message more approachable, more attractive, or more interesting by using a social media tool as a political tool. And it’s no coincidence that both had young members of their press team take part in those efforts. Young staff working to reach out to their demographic makes sense. But there’s a reason this tweet is particularly depressing (Mike Ricci helped author the Swift GIF post):

And there’s a reason we saw far less of a negative response to Obama’s use.

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