Politics Through the Prism of Twitter and Facebook

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Photo illustration: Newsweek

If the medium is still the message—and I think it is—then the best way to understand what is going on in politics this fall is to think of the difference between Facebook and Twitter.

Barack Obama in 2008 was a product of Facebook (the root of which is a members-only Ivy League network) and other Web sites. He was a one-man brand, and his central site was his main vehicle, built on top of the more decentralized sites and blogs of the nascent antiwar movement.

The Tea Party counterrevolution of 2010 is far more diffuse and fast-moving, a Twitter-based hive mind with no one central figure or campaign headquarters.

Now, let’s not forget that the Tea Party in its many manifestations has some serious financial underpinning from the Big Boys—read: the Koch family—and savvy operational advice from the likes of former congressman Dick Armey, an insider’s insider. But the Tea Party is also a real digital insurgency, simultaneously, and paradoxically, both spread out and monothematic.

tease-630-420-mm-10-08-20-palin Sarah Palin's Most Controversial Tweets

It’s hashtag politics. 

To see what I mean, go to a site called #TCOT Report —“Breaking News from the Conservative World Reported by Top Conservatives on Twitter”—or go directly to the #TCOT hashtag term on Twitter itself. It’s the Tea Party stream of consciousness, and it has been—and can be—used to direct volunteers and money quickly and without central control to local races around the country. It’s more phone-based than laptop-based. Sarah Palin, of course, is the Gore Vidal of attack tweets.

The latest test of the Twitterized campaign comes tomorrow in Delaware, where a widely discredited perennial candidate—one Christine O’Donnell—faces off against Rep. Mike Castle for the Republican Senate nomination. On TV the other week, I dismissed her chances. But that was before I started reading TCOT, and before I realized just how perfectly the 140-character action bulletin represents the essence of the New New Right tide.

It’s the also the difference between a presidential year and an “off year.” This time it’s about the locals.

The Tea Party's blunt message—low and less  government (except along the Mexican border)—is much longer than “hope,” but still less than 140 characters. The Tea Party message is easily adapted and transported.

I’m not sure that Rep. John Boehner, who believes in face-to-face politics, especially with fellow House members and cadres of Washington lobbyists, quite understands what is about to hit him if he ends up as speaker in a Republican-dominated House. 

In 2008, Barack Obama’s army was organized and motivated via the Web, including Facebook. That made sense, since his was a crusade built on the celebration of one man and his platform, and it was designed to be an instant “outsider” establishment. It was focused and very highly centralized under the direction of David Plouffe, the campaign manager. Obama’s main Facebook site absorbed others that had sprung up early on, and then the main energy was transferred to his Web site.

But times have changed. There will be another revolution in 2012. But that is a world away in digital space.

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