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Shadow Elite: Truthiness in the Twitter Era

Posted: 10/21/10 07:07 AM ET

If you think that an "information era" has ushered in a golden age of transparency, read on. This is the third in an occasional Shadow Elite series examining how private actors seize and hoard vital information and brand it for the public to serve their own, rather than the public, interest. This week: how they use truthiness, armed now with social media, to amplify their power.

Does it strike you as strange that the biggest political rally of this midterm election was headed not by a politician but a conservative news personality (Glenn Beck)? Or that thousands of citizens opposed to the first rally would take to Facebook to urge a comedian (Stephen Colbert) playing a farcical version of a conservative news personality (Bill O'Reilly) to sponsor a counter-rally? (One commentator impishly suggested that Beck himself is a parody of Colbert, who's a parody of O'Reilly.)

We're guessing the answer is no, none of this seems strange, and that's because we are all thoroughly immersed in a society in which we are served up a dizzying array of performances online, on cable news or radio. It's a culture in which many traditional institutions have increasingly lost their clout and individual players and networks, what Janine calls shadow elite, have stepped into the breach. These pundits and power brokers are able to get away with stage-managing their self-presentations, portraying themselves in ways that baldly contradict their previous presentations and realities.

This was already the case when Colbert coined the term "truthiness" 5 years ago this week. Since then, the power of those traditional institutions, including political ones, has declined even further. And the use of social networking has exploded, making it easier than ever for citizens to sink into their own compartmentalized reality cocoons, as well as easier for power brokers to exploit the isolation. Inside these cocoons, opposing viewpoints are screened out, and preferred facts and "truth" are the only ones represented.

How did we get here? The last 30 years have been marked by the rise of "neoliberal" policies, most notably privatization and deregulation. This has helped break down clear distinctions between the state and private sectors and encouraged the informalization of bureaucracy as well as its circumvention.

Accompanying that redesign of governance is the necessity to "perform" for the public, to show that a mission has been accomplished even if it hasn't. Simple story lines, "metrics," and pseudo-quantitative indicators must be contrived to convince an audience of success far from the context in which the mission is being carried out. Hence the explosion of "success stories" such as those touted by government officials in congressional testimony to justify their programs. Today's formulaic show-and-tells capture the need to perform for the public.

And the end of the Cold War opened up new, sparsely-governed arenas ranging from borders controlled by smugglers to commerce regulated by money launderers. In this landscape, organizations have become more reliant on players' performances because lines of authority often have become less clear or even nonexistent. The rearranging of authority has rendered the track records of many players less visible and made it more difficult, in the absence of clear authorities, to recognize who represents whom and who is doing what. And the 1990's gave a new kind of supremely flexible and agile power broker vast new venues to perform, to sell their version of events as truth: 24/7 cable news and the Internet.

In the last few years social media has entered the mix, just as more of those personalized, network-based, or non-traditional political organizations have emerged across the ideological spectrum to exert power. President Obama's eminently-wired campaign group Organizing for America, according to journalist Matt Bai in the New York Times Magazine, "has virtually supplanted the party structure." The Karl Rove-powered American Crossroads has been called the "Shadow R.N.C.", a "non-profit" that raises millions from, among others, billionaires. (Its even more opaque sister group Crossroads GPS, a 501c(4), is raising millions from donors who may never have to disclose their identity.) The insurgent Tea Party can't even be called an organization, much less a traditional one. And Fox News is not a political organization, or is it? Four likely G.O.P. contenders for 2012 are on their roster, able to push their brand and message, avoid hostile interviews with other news outlets, and get paid handsomely for it. Politico notes that G.O.P. insiders call the four undeclared the "Fox Candidates."

These groups, and their respective political "stars" work the social media sites, and it's become commonplace now for traditional news outlets, which have continued to wither as new media grow, to note that an important announcement was relayed, say, on Twitter. The powerful and influential are able to have a direct communication outlet with hundreds of thousands of like-minded people, promoting a false sense of intimacy, calibrating their message, branding and rebranding their self-serving truth, minute to minute.

So what about the grand narrative that such technologies are democratizing, egalitarian, transparency-promoting and truthiness-fighting? Janine made the case in Shadow Elite that internet technologies usher in new forms of governing that can lie far beyond transparency, giving the powerful the tools to hide secrets, and agendas. Malcolm Gladwell in a recent much-talked about New Yorker piece makes a similar argument about social media in particular:


It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability....The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.

Frank Rich in the New York Times, picking up on Gladwell's themes, catalogues the ways that politicians and their patrons have used social media this election season in ways that are less than upfront, and he notes that it was old-fashioned reporters who outed them.

Two computer scientists at Wellesley College identified what they called a Twitter bomb tossed at Democrat Martha Coakley during her failed U.S. Senate run in Massachusetts. Profs. Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj traced them to a low-profile group in Iowa (like Crossroads GPS, a 501c(4) "non-profit") linked to the masterminds behind the Swift boating of John Kerry and the infamous Willie Horton ads. They point out that even though Twitter is still only used by a small fraction of Americans, the way search engines are now set up means Twitter speech can end up on the first page that turns up when people Google a candidate or issue, providing "a new opportunity for (propaganda) success to tricksters of all trades."

This stealth attack is, of course, a blatant case of dirty tricks, but truthiness is a more insidious art form. The branding that used to be confined to the corporate world is now also used by political message-makers, aiming to create a look and feel that consumers identify with intuitively. Social networking surely enables that. When power brokers (or their paid staff) tweet with emoticons or tell their "followers" that it's their kid's birthday, they're really selling their brand, and the self-serving narratives and "facts" attached to the brand. Stephen Colbert, five years ago, defined truthiness as "what you want to be true, [not] what is true." But in a shadow elite age, it's actually what they - the powerful - want you to believe is true. The revolution, as Gladwell aptly puts it, will not be tweeted.

 
 
 

Follow Janine R. Wedel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/janinewedel