BLIND SPOT POLITICS

a contemplative approach to politics

Political Klout: How Digital Influence Can Improve American Democracy

Posted by blindspotpolitics on August 16, 2012

Ever since Howard Dean used digital media in his 2004 Presidential Primary bid, political campaigns have viewed the digital and social media pastures ever greener. Instead of spending time and money promoting traditional media (newspapers, radio, and especially TV), campaigns and political operatives now spend hours discussing strategy for Pintrest or Instagram. Digital media, and the internet in general, realize the potential of this emerging market. Facebook, Google, and Yahoo–three of the largest digital platforms for targeted advertising–now have departments that specialize in political and advocacy media.

Yet, political operatives and media buyers are still learning how to best utilize the newly discovered and ever-expanding digital space. While the older generation scrambles to learn the in and outs of this complicated industry, young entrepreneurs and political hopefuls are keenly exploiting the technologies they grew up with and use everyday. For now, the room for innovative and experimentation is immense.

As Schumpter aptly theorized, industry competition fuels innovation through ‘creative destruction.’ In the competitive world of political campaigning–where the stakes of winning and losing are so incredibly high–it’s understandable why the reluctant old-timers, like Bastiat’s candle-makers, are trying to reaffirm their importance.

The current ventures into digital and social media by many of these experienced professionals are mainly half-hearted. The internet is complicated. Even to begin the most simplistic digital media buy takes more time developing strategy and targeting universes than a $1 million direct mail buy. Instead of diving head first into the digital space, many operatives have preferred to stick to the shallows: exploring the bare minimum that current technological innovations have to offer.

In a world where we are very close to printing 3-D burritos (check it out), campaigns still canvass by hand, promote their candidates through signs and buttons, and ‘change hearts and minds’ through the Puritanical town-hall meeting. Unfortunately for them, although fortunate for the younger political operatives who better understand the digital landscape and innovation, we are discovering that our social interactions can be partly and wholly emulated on the web.

However, with the older political operatives in control and the government’s general reluctance for a modicum of change, many aspects of campaigning are (rightly and wrongly) left out of the move to digital advertising and social media interaction.

An article released on July 24th,2012 in Campaigns and Elections by Marty Stone entitled ‘Communicating with influentials’ is a reaffirmation of the ‘old school’ way of doing things.  The article promotes the importance of people like the author’s mother ‘Bubbie;’ those trusted members of communities, well known for their advice giving on political matters and thus their control over how ‘platoons’ of voters will act at the polls. The author is explicit in his rejection of digital media, writing: “There’s no question that social media outreach is key when it comes to delivering a candidate’s message, but word-of-mouth contact is still king (or queen) even in this digital age.”

Sorry, Marty, but the voters of tomorrow, used to a world where they can constantly interact with friends and join online communities (led by influential people), don’t emphasis the importance of community influencers in the same way as their parents. Instead, like in all things, they’re moving to embrace social media interaction and constructed, online communities.

What many political operatives probably don’t know is that empirically judging ‘influence’ is one of the freshest and most controversial developments in our digital age. The leader of being able to judge online and social media influence is Klout, whose newest update is another reaffirmation that they are “the standard for influence.” Klout gives individuals scores on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 100 that ranks how much ‘influence’ sed individual has online. Don’t ask me to explain the equations or anything behind the scenes; all I know is that I currently have a ’59.’

Although this a new technology, the implications for politics are clear. This technology would allow campaigns to target ‘influentials’–people who can influence voters far more intimately, efficiently, and cost effectively than the most well made campaign spot. Think about it for a second: when it comes to politics, whose advice do you trust more: Campaign Ads; Your local paper; Anderson Cooper on CNN; Or your friends and family? I hope, unless you have strained relations, the last choice is a clear winner.

Because of the uncertainty of the ‘influence rating’ industry, and really the uncertainty regarding the validity of the rankings, Klout is still hesitant to enter the political advertising realm. However, once these issues are resolved, there will be no reason for Klout and similar companies to not ‘dance with the devil,’ and begin picking team Blue or team Red. Although many might react negativly to this prospect–perhaps thinking, great, another way that technology and politics are going to influence and shape our lives–the shift could be incredibly empowering for the individual and for democracy in general.

Utilizing Klout in this way would be at the very heart of its mission: affirming the importance of social capital within the real world. Political campaigns, instead of utilizing ‘influentials’ as so many billboards or banner ads constantly promoting buzzwords and talking points, would be forced to court them: convincing these individuals by displaying the logic behind electing their candidate or supporting their ballot measure.

Even more interesting, having individual influencers promote ideas person-to-person instead of the ‘one size fits all’ mentality of political advertising (which, granted, has changed due to micro targeting but still lacks the intimacy of earnest social interaction) could force a deeper and more personalized discussion of politics in general.

Individuals are convinced to support or not support causes for different reasons. Klout  allows influencers to convince voters thought by thought, argument by argument, perspective by perspective. Complicated political and economic messages, discussions, and rationales that normally fall flat when promoted and consumed on a mass, 15 second ad, scale would also benefit from the personalization of politics. When we discuss ideas one on one, instead of enmass, we dive deeper into discourse, promoting and defending our beliefs through reason instead of the Pathos ubiquitous in political advertising.  Perhaps, with Klout and the creation of quantifiable social capital, political campaigns could better promote and the public could better understand inherently complicated solutions to our nation’s complex problems.

Far from making political campaigns and advertising more impersonal and machine-like, the application of digital ‘influencology’ by Klout and others would reaffirm the importance of individualism in American democracy. The influencers and influencees, who already interact online and offline in many cases, would be given autonomy over how to frame political debates. Rather than campaign messages coming from political operatives and formal campaign components, the messages will arrive informally, from online community leaders, influential friends, and trusted commentators. The only difference from natural social interaction–interaction that changes and shapes peoples opinions on important issues–would be the first step already discussed: convincing those with large stores of social capital to support and promote a specific campaign.

Today, we have dinner time discussions that alter the way we think about politics and the world. Maybe someday soon, Mom and Dad will be championing Senator XYZ by committing to support his campaign online. Although I’ve obviously left out many specifics regarding how exactly campaigns could capitalize on Klout’s technology, I think it’s clear that a) the acceptance of technology in campaign strategy means that some form of online ‘influencology’ is probably inevitable and b) this is not something to fret or fear, but something to embrace and eagerly await.

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