Tumblr Takes the White House: How Social Media Is Changing Politics


President Barack Obama has made a further addition to his student debt initiative aimed at alleviating economic strain on students in America. As a result, he has a number of PR goals he needs to fulfill in order to make his executive order fully successful as political strategy; politics are are a business, policy is the capitol, votes and conveniently referable backgrounds is the revenue, and politicians do not benefit from anonymous donations. Basically, if no one knows, what’s the point? This brings us to the question of how modern political parties, organizations, and individuals gain access to their audience. Social media, apps, and online networking platforms of all sorts are transforming everything up to and including politics, and there’s been more than a few studies showing just how integrated it’s becoming.

The White House and advisory staff’s method in this specific case looks to draw in the right audience using the correct means to most easily and effectively relay key information, and for college students, a population comprised of voting aged adults, this means a live Q&A on Tumblr. There’s even gifs on the whitehouse.gov page linking to the page.

Tumblr is ideal for a few reasons. First and foremost is that it makes Obama look modern, or as he says, “hip” enough to appeal to students using a platform commonplace for that generation. He’s not trying to call a cell phone with a rotary, and he’s playing to his audience’s preferences. It’s tactics like these that can help a political party or organization appeal better to certain demographics, or depending on the medium, to a wider audience than those Americans more likely to visit whitehouse.gov or read the news.

Indeed, according to Gallup, there is a tendency for young Americans to identify more often with the Democratic party than the Republican party, with eighteen to twenty-nine year old Americans showing 53 percent in Democratic or Democratic leaning affiliation, and 35 percent affiliating themselves with Republicans or leaning Republican. A more likely explanation for this is that younger Americans tend to have more left leaning views on social issues such as same-sex marriage — especially since this tendency dates back to 1995, long before Tumblr and Twitter. The president’s upcoming  meeting of the masses on Tumblr aside, there are almost infinite examples of how politics are being changed and shaped.

Many surface news and PR needs are met using Twitter. Most politicians of note have Twitter accounts, from Vice President Joe Biden, to Queen of Jordan Rania Al Abdullah, to the Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Many politicians keep a blog, such as House Speaker John Boehner’s “Speaker’s Blog,” and of course the Chief Official White House Photographer has an Instagram.

However, uses for sites and services like these go far beyond just daily tweets from Jay Carney and John Kerry. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden held his own live question and answer session on Twitter even as he was sheltered in the amnesty provided to him in Russia. Social media, Facebook, and Twitter particularly have also played a major roll in organizing, building, and coordinating civil unrest and protests — something that may change given enough time and an aggressive enough intelligence network.

A recent study from the University of Washington outlines the ways that social media played a major role in major political upheaval such as the Arab Spring, noting that “conversations about revolution often preceded major events,” and that “social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North America and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising.” This prior knowledge, the study notes, is what makes the project so unique. Egypt and Tunisia are of particular interest in this study because it takes data from the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam in order to examine social media’s influence leading up to events, not just Twitter and blog activity beforehand.

In Tunisia, conversations about liberty, democracy, and revolution on blogs and on Twitter often immediately preceded mass protests,” said a University research and news release. It noted that 20 percent of blogs dealt with former President of Tunisia Ben Ali on the day he resigned from his office, an increase of 15 percent form the previous month.

Knowing this, it’s clear that such a technique can be used by other governments as a tool to incite unrest, manipulate grassroots opinion anonymously, or simply allow for already present opinions to surface and explode. A U.S. government development program, United States Agency for International Development, worked on a Cuban version of Twitter, ZunZuneo, which offered a social media outlet for communication via cell phones. The cellular nature of the communication allowed users to circumvent the restrictive hold the Cuban government has on the Internet. When the U.S.’s involvment in ZunZuneo’s became a subject of media attention, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney emphasized that the program was not an intelligence operation. “Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong. Congress funds democracy programing for Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and to strengthen civil society,” said Carney, noting oversight controls and the public nature of the program, which was discussed in Congress. That said, offshore accounts and front companies were reportedly used in the funding and creation of ZunZuneo. Ultimately, the power of social media is such that the U.S. government was still handing a group of civilians a major strategic weapon if they choose independently to protest and incite unrest.

Social media aiding civilians in the fight against an oppressive government is one use, but far more common seems to be social media’s use in bringing government and civilians into closer contact. A series of case studies in Northeast India was conducted and authored by Manjit Nath and Pranjal Kalita, two members of the Indian government and the ICFAI University. The research, published by the International Journal of Applied Research & Studies, looked at the Facebook page of a city Traffic Police Department in Shillong, at the Facebook page of Assam India’s Education and Health Minister, and finally, at the Twitter account of Doctor Himanta Biswa Sharma, the Minister of Assam Province for Education, Health and Family Welfare, and Assam Accord Implementation.

The case studies show the range of involvement from politicians, a range that can be easily seen here in the U.S. The Education and Health Minister of Assan does not update his own page, instead keeping a staff who does so for him — “hence, he does not participate in the discussions/comments. This raises the possibility of wrong interpretation of his updates in some cases,” reads the study. As is only to clear from some of the more hot-tempered American politicians, keeping tabs on your own social networking unsupervised and reviewed can also lead to more scandals. We’re looking at you, Anthony Weiner. On the other extreme are cases such as Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose attempts to keep up with replies to citizens on Twitter eventually resulted in being overwhelmed. “I can’t run a Ministry on Twitter; I am not going to answer any more query on this topic,” he wrote in one, proof, according to the study’s authors that “this clearly shows the necessity of a dedicated person/group to handle social media.”

The study went on to suggest formation guidelines for social media in India’s government, but one thing it was clear on. Social media is a powerful tool and it isn’t going anywhere, not for governments internationally, and therefore not for the news media.

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Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS