Authenticity of Political Figures in the Age of Digital Media

Recently, we’ve read many articles and much information regarding the increased use of social media within the realm of politics.  It is absolutely incredible how far the practice of campaigning has come – from its traditional means of speeches and parades, to today’s almost-completely digitized features.  In her New York Times article, “Republicans Embrace Twitter Hard for ’12”, Jennifer Steinhauser highlights the importance that parties place on the use of digital media and quotes Mr. Rasiej of Personal Democracy Media, who claims that both sides have the ability to equitably use social and digital media as cavalries would fight with tanks and nuclear bombs in war.

However impressive, useful, or innovative these new means are, I can’t help but wonder to what extent the quality of our political leaders is diminishing due to these changes.  As we’ve read, campaigns are almost completely run by agencies, like Blue State Digital.  As any agency does, this one develops strategies and implements actions to obtain a specific goal; in this case, the goal is to win the presidency.  Digital agencies work with advertising agencies, press agencies, PR representatives, speech makers, and beyond to create an image for the candidate or party they are aiming to represent.  Everything down to the color of the tie candidates wear is chosen by an outside party for a specific reason.

Given this understanding, I beg to understand the extent to which the identity, demeanor, and politics of political/celebrity figures is marred and impacted by the strong influences of outside actors.  Would you agree that the authenticity of a candidate is impacted by the forces of the agencies they rely on?  The goal of advertising and PR agencies is to essentially manipulate something in the eyes of an audience so along those same lines, is it plausible to be fearful of a candidate’s negative qualities being overshadowed by a very strong and smart digital agency?

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4 Responses to Authenticity of Political Figures in the Age of Digital Media

  1. cjduvall says:

    I completely agree with your point and I find it really interesting. You actually even presented an argument that I have always struggled to effectively describe. It has basically come down to a science on how to win an election. Obviously books and strategies are widespread and read by many. But as you say, these cooperations like Blue State create this image for the politician that best suited to capture the public’s heart. Every decision is scrutinized and evaluated, as you say even down to the color of the tie the candidate wears. This makes me feel that I’m almost being tricked into voting for a candidate. These agencies are using psychology and seduction to get votes sometimes even above policy. It is completely fair to be skeptical of politicians. You point of negative qualities being overshadowed is a good one. I would also argue that the campaign politician might be very different once elected. Once a media group is no longer guiding the candidate step by step towards election, things might seem different in terms of the personality of the candidate. This is a very scary thought as we might be voting for people that are very different from how they would act in office.

  2. mdhaas715 says:

    I agree that there is reason to be skeptical of a candidate’s negative qualities being overshadowed by a digital agency but I do not think that the candidates abilities are so overstated by these agencies that we end up with a different candidate after the campaign. These agencies, like Blue State Digital, are hired to help candidates gain public support and win the election. In order to do that, they need to make sure their candidate is reaching out to the public in a certain way and presenting a certain image. However, what we have to keep in mind is that today both sides have the ability and recognize the importance of using these types of agencies. So while on the one hand these agencies may be downplaying a candidate’s negative qualities, the other side may be trying to bring these qualities to light. In many campaigns they use these tactics, whether attributed to their campaign or by having a third party do it for them, and release negative qualities and things about the person they are running against. So while these agencies are manipulating the way we perceive the candidate, I do not think they are doing it to the extent that they are presenting an entire different person altogether especially since they have to account for the other candidate exposing whatever potentially negative qualities they may be overshadowing. I think that the agencies are aiding in presenting the best version of the candidate while still using qualities true to the actual candidate. So while I think there is reason to be skeptical, I do not think with the resources available to both parties that we would end up with a candidate completely different than the one during the campaign.

  3. I think this is a very interesting point you make, and I agree that the authenticity of a candidate is heavily reliant on outside forces. From their reputation and success, it’s obvious that companies like Blue State Digital know what they’re doing and are very good at it. Because of their ability to manipulate an image of a political candidate, like Barack Obama, so well, I think it is reasonable for the general public to be wary and fearful of what these agencies are hiding from us. On the other hand, for political elections, it’s a competition with different candidates fighting for one position, so even if these companies working for a candidate are only showing their best face, the opposition will always try and show the negative side. Even when it’s not election time, the opposing party will be highly critical of whoever is in power, like Steinhauer talks about in her article. (Though this was specifically talking about during an election year, the point is that both sides will criticize each other using different media platforms). Still, not everyone will actually hear these criticisms from the opposing side or look into them further because of things like the filter bubble, so it’s scary that such powerful political figures can make themselves look great using mostly the work and effort of others.

  4. sdkusin says:

    I totally agree with what you wrote about authenticity. I think an additional force that impacts the authenticity, or the apparent authenticity is the medium used to communicate with the voters. As we saw in Slotnick’s article, presidential candidates from 2004-2008 largely struggled to appear authentic on SNS and the campaigns overlooked the social norms or the website culture (Pasek et al) of the specific SNS. I think one of the main struggles for candidates in the digital age is appearing authentic on SNS. To answer your other question, I do think there is reason to fear that a candidates negative qualities will be overshadowed by a strong digital presence. That being said, I think the specific affordances of the medium used to reach voters has always benefited some candidates and proved a detriment to others. For examples, in class we have discussed the Nixon and Kennedy debate. The debate was the first-ever televised presidential debate. On the night of the debate, Nixon was suffering from the flu and, to make matters worse, hours before the debate he also aggravated a pre-existing knee injury forcing him to walk with a slight limp during the debate. Neglecting the importance of appearance and non-verbal cues on television and in the current social climate, unlike Kennedy, Nixon refused to receive make-up prior to the debate. Those who watched the debate on television overwhelming favored Kennedy’s performance while radio audiences largely felt Nixon won the debate. Nixon’s team did not understand the television medium and as a result, Nixon fared poorly among TV audiences. In addition, as Steinhauer suggests, today both parties understand the significance and the affordances of SNS and other digital technologies. As a result, the playing-field today may actually be more even than in the past despite the prevalence of strong digital campaigns.

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