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Swiftboating the Stimulus: Did the Internet Really Kill "Rovian" Politics?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, February 19 2010

A year and a half ago, a few weeks before the presidential election, Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a bold claim about the impact of the internet on our public life: "We are witnessing the end of Rovian politics," he declared to Arianna Huffington. Many observers, this writer included, enthused at how the internet was enabling the mass fact-checking of political statements--I called it "crowd-scouring"--and imagined that perhaps whatever the outcome of the 2008 election, "these new habits and tools will get aimed at making government more honest, open and effective."

Today, watching how our political discourse seems, depressingly, to still be dominated by blatantly anti-factual claims (such as the notion that $862 billion in stimulus spending didn't create one new job, as newly elected Senator Scott Brown recently claimed), it's worth asking whether Schmidt's pronouncement was way too optimistic. Has something changed? Were we too optimistic back in 2008? Or is there another element (no longer) at work, which people perhaps are less aware of: the existence of a robust, "people's army" of pro-Obama factcheckers in 2008, which has withered away in the last year?

At the time of Schmidt's statement, Huffington expanded his notion in a well-received post, writing:

Thanks to YouTube -- and blogging and instant fact-checking and viral emails -- it is getting harder and harder to get away with repeating brazen lies without paying a price, or to run under-the-radar smear campaigns without being exposed.

She noted a series of efforts by the McCain campaign to smear the Obama campaign, but argued that they weren't working:

...[T]here is a diamond amidst all this dung: the lack of traction this Rovian politics is getting. It's as if Rove and his political arsonists keep lighting fires, only to see them doused by the powerful information spray the Internet has made possible.

The Internet has enabled the public to get to know candidates in a much fuller and more intimate way than in the old days (i.e. four years ago), when voters got to know them largely through 30-second campaign ads and quick sound bites chosen by TV news producers.

Compare that to the way over 6 million viewers (on YouTube alone) were able to watch the entirety of Obama's 37-minute speech on race -- or the thousands of other videos posted by the campaign and its supporters.

Back in the Dark Ages of 2004, when YouTube (and HuffPost, for that matter) didn't exist, a campaign could tell a brazen lie, and the media might call them on it. But if they kept repeating the lie again and again and again, the media would eventually let it go (see the Swiftboating of John Kerry). Traditional media like moving on to the next shiny thing. But bloggers love revisiting a story. So when Palin kept repeating her bridge to nowhere lie, bloggers kept calling her on it. Andrew Sullivan, for one, has made a cottage industry of calling Palin on her lies. And eventually, the truth filtered up and cost McCain credibility with his true base: journalists.

The Internet may make it easier to disseminate character smears, but it also makes it much less likely that these smears will stick.

I was thinking about this argument--which I more or less endorsed at the time--as I read my friend David Corn's Politics Daily post today about the current political argument over the impact, or lack thereof, of Obama's stimulus package. David reports on the widespread public belief that the economic stimulus bill hasn't produced any jobs, and charges that one party in the national debate has been deliberately lying about the facts, with little fear of repercussion. In effect, that the "internet truth squad" lauded by people like Huffington and Schmidt either doesn't exist, or is far from as strong as they had imagined.

I asked David if he thought that was the case. He replied:

It may be harder to lie and escape notice, due to expansion of on-line vetting. Bloggers, political entities, journalistic outfits (like http://www.factcheck.org">Factcheck.org and Politifact.com), and ideologically-minded watchdog groups do engage in serious and significant factchecking of remarks made by officials, politicians, and media figures. But the dominant narrative in the established media, which still influences the national discourse, remains "he said/she said."

An example: the White House says the stimulus bill has added about 2 million jobs to the economy; the Republicans say there's been absolutely no new jobs created. Independent factchecking, as I noted in my most recent PoliticsDaily.com column, shows the GOPers are dead wrong. Yet articles in the New York Times and Washington Post focus on the debate between the two sides, treating each side's position with journalistic respect. These articles will include information that a fair-minded reader can use to conclude that the GOPers are not telling the truth. But the frame of this coverage is the face-off between Ds and Rs.

The story is not that one side is flat-out wrong (and perhaps lying). It's the mud-wrestling that counts. This manner of coverage offers an advantage to the side that is peddling false information. Politicians often need only to fight to a draw and can achieve their tactical aims by making a dispute (in which they might otherwise be on the losing end) seem contentious and unclear. Lying helps in such an endeavor--especially if reporters are nervous about calling a lie a lie.

In David's view, the problem is that the mainstream media hasn't really changed since 2008; style matters more than substance, and the horse race (who is winning the messaging wars?) is still more important than reporting on actual facts vs falsehoods. I also asked NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen, author of the widely influential blog PressThink, whether he thought the current fight over the facts of the economic stimulus was telling us something about the internet's impact, or lack thereof, on the politics of the truth. He replied:

You're asking me about something I have thought a lot about, and tried to develop a theory or two of.... So I would say three things:

1. It's easier to point it out and find the evidence that shows you're right when politicians are lying. You see that in the growth of services like Politifact.com that try to put into practice what I think Schmidt meant. This is a big change.

2. The claim that this would lead to less lying across the entire space of politics was based on an assumption: that politicians care equally about the kind of legitimacy that comes from not being shown up as a liar, hypocrite, flip flopper, shady dealer on the news pages the elites scan. But what if that concern is not equally distributed? And what if you have the rise of political figures like Sarah Palin whose appeal is so grounded in culture war, that "exposure" for false statements is really just fuel for her permanent campaign against elites? Schmidt didn't think about that.

3. To some extent I see this whole discussion as naive. Sure, politicians engage in some pretty outrageous lying and how to make them pay is a puzzle and a half. But during the two terms of Bush one of the outstanding trends across the government was the retreat from empiricism generally, in which facts on the ground became an impediment to executive power and people who knew what they were talking about became the adversaries to the political people. Compared to that, lying pols is a tiny problem. The ur text for this is

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html

an article that I am convinced was never assimilated into political thought by the left, the right or the press. To this day the Republican party hasn't considered the consequences of a split between reality-based Republicans and... another kind.

With the result that today you have a 4,500 word profile of the Tea Party movement in the New York Times that calls it, "A sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny."

Impending tryanny. Does the New York Times reporter ask if that narrative is reality-based? So you have political forms that are lies: a movement based on an assumption that Soviet-style tryanny of the state is around the corner.

Rosen, like Corn, is basically blaming the mainstream media for failing to alter its very old habit of giving equal credence to both sides of an argument, even if one is clearly not "reality-based."

I emailed Arianna to get her view on the current moment, and she responded:

There is no question that it is much easier, in this era of YouTube politics, to expose the lies our leaders continue to tell – the latest example being all the Republican members of Congress who voted against the stimulus bill, trashed it in public, then turned around and took full credit when the benefits of the bill arrived in their district.

At the same time, this is a moment of great economic anxiety – with millions out work, millions of homes foreclosed, and millions going bankrupt. In times like these, people are more likely to be driven by their lizard brains and react out of fear as opposed to reason, making it easier for demagogues to scapegoat and peddle conspiracy theories laced with violent undertones, the way Glenn Beck is doing.

In this kind of atmosphere, people sometimes refuse to believe their own eyes.

Hmm. It's true that the economy is much worse now than it was in the summer-fall of 2008, but it's not as though there wasn't already intense economic distress all over the country and widespread antipathy to Democratic economic approaches in the sorts of places "Joe the Plumber" came from. So, I'm not sure if the change in the information wars really comes down to, "It's the Economy, Stupid." Something different was going on in the summer and fall of 2008 that made people think Rovian politics was on the run. What could that have been?

I'd like to suggest one additional element that may help in understanding why the White House is losing many current arguments. The internet is a neutral tool, and yes, it does make it easier to spread messages--true ones as well as false ones. But here's what has changed: in 2008, the Obama campaign had a huge, motivated, networked, self-organizing (to some degree) base that was using the internet every day to fight the information wars. They had an active corps of super-volunteers focused on doing "rapid response" to media bias and falsehoods. And they had a well-constructed web operation centered on a special site called "FighttheSmears.com" that was tuned, via search, to capture the attention of random web-surfers wondering whether Obama was a Muslim, or born in America, and get them credible information. But take a look at traffic to FighttheSmears.com over the last two years:

I hate to sound like a broken record, but given that we live in a networked age where people are bombarded with competing information claims 24-7, the notion that you can just hope people will find the truth on their own isn't enough. You have to organize constantly to defend the truth. And thus [cue broken record], the failure of the Obama campaign to properly plan to keep their 13 million member grassroots movement going full steam surfaces again as a key piece of the "meta-story" of the last year and a half of political struggle. When you have a movement, media narratives shift. (Hello, Tea Party!). Without one, the narratives shift too. The other way.

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