Wednesday, January 29, 2014

With Social Media's Rise, the Pulpit Isn't Just the President's Anymore



WASHINGTON — Twitter has fast become the conventional-wisdom clearinghouse and real-time echo chamber for major political events, so it was not surprising Tuesday evening when Twitter also became the forum where opinion on President Obama’s State of the Union address seemed to crystallize before he had even finished speaking.

“The media party line where everyone can listen in,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist.

“The town hall for the media and political elite,” said Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist and founder of Blue Engine Message and Media.

The power of Twitter to shape the debate (for better or worse) was on display shortly before Mr. Obama began, when Representative Randy Weber, Republican of Texas, posted an error-riddled message that called the president a “Socialistic dictator,” and quickly went viral.

Indeed, Twitter’s ability to focus the pundit class helps explain why, in the fierce competition to control the political narrative, lawmakers, candidates, operatives and even the president are increasingly turning to it and other social media. The battle is the same as before, but they are now hoping to prevail 140 characters at a time.

“Conventional wisdom is like fast-drying concrete in the Twitter age — it doesn’t take long to harden,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. “Twitter is one of the fastest ways to shape opinion.”

The State of the Union address spawned a bipartisan embrace of new photo- and video-sharing platforms, and a rush to create tweetable graphics and synchronized hashtags to amplify messages. Democrats and Republicans competed to make their views the majority, often with little regard to what the president actually said. Members of Congress sent out 750 tweets over the course of Mr. Obama’s speech, according to data provided by Twitter.

Congressional Republicans rallied around hashtags like #CloseTheGap, to push their message of reducing income inequality, and #YearOfAction, to call on Mr. Obama to act on some of their major proposals in the coming year. (Of course, especially after the president called for a “year of action” in his address, #YearofAction took off among Republicans and Democrats alike.)

And, perhaps more notably, Republicans set up “recording stations” on Vine, the Twitter-owned platform for sharing six-second videos, and Instagram to allow caucus members to record short responses that they could share before, during and after the speech.

When Mr. Obama got to the part of his address where he said he was willing to go around Congress through executive orders, Representative Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, was ready. As if on cue, he tweeted out a prerecorded Vine video featuring him sitting him behind his desk and stating, “If the president has a pen and a telephone, we have the Constitution.”
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