09/14/2012 10:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Instant Political Gratification and the News Agenda Setters

To put it nicely, Romney could have done better on his foreign policy audition for president. He jumped the gun on his Libya statement and not only criticized President Obama for sympathizing with radical Islamists in Libya, but then stuck with it, saying, "It's never too early for the U.S. government to defend attacks on Americans and defend our values."

On top of that, Romney broke his own rule: Both he and President Obama made it a point to not campaign on Sept. 11. Romney made the statement at 10:09 p.m. that day, but wanted his statement in all the morning papers -- so he tried "embargo" the press from running his statement until midnight because he couldn't keep his mouth shut and didn't want to lose face campaigning on a national day of mourning -- but still wanted to shoot his mouth off about foreign policy.

Within minutes, the news media jumped on the story, Google was buzzing, Republicans were distancing themselves from the statement, and even Romney's former aide said "They stepped in it." Twitter was a quick-moving loop of information, with tweets, retweets, links, videos, memes and news feeding millions of followers as they collectively facepalmed at Romney's latest attempt to look presidential.

Maybe if news didn't spread as quickly, maybe if news didn't repeat as often as it does, and maybe if people weren't as hungry for news, Romney would be in better shape. While Romney was "not campaigning" yesterday, Psychology Today magazine published an article titled "Why We're All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google." In the article, written from research by Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson in "Brain Research Reviews," Dr. Susan Weinschenk claims that the never-ending loop of updates and messaging that Google and Twitter provide stimulate the dopamine receptors in the "pleasure" center of the brain -- the same way drugs, sex, food and exercise stimulate dopamine.

With the Internet, Twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into Google. What to see what your colleagues are up to? Go to LinkedIn. It's easy to get in a dopamine-induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more.

In brainwave terms, this constant loop of information -- in this case, political news -- is comparable to a drug like cocaine or the after effects of exercise. It stimulates dopamine in the brain, it makes the brain feel good, and it drives the owner of that brain to seek out more information -- which is unfortunate for Mr. Romney, who at this point probably wishes he could shrink behind those American flags at his press conference and make this gaffe go away. The idea of "instant political gratification," fed by the Internet and 24-hour news outlets, isn't going to let the story go away that easily.

This social-news loop is a particularly vicious cycle in this example. The story started not just with Romney's "embargoed" statement at 10:09 p.m. Eastern Standard Time/midnight Politically Correct Time, but with Reince Priebus's tweet at exactly 12:01 a.m. EST:


Preibus couldn't hold his thumbs for more than 60 seconds after the embargo ended and just had to say something as soon as he was allowed -- it was basically a political Text from Last Night. And so the Preibus tweet got retweeted, screengrabbed, and plotted on the timeline that showed Romney jumping in front of a podium before he had all of the facts.

The point of all of this, besides pointing out Romney's lack of foreign policy chops, is to say that the Libya goof may not have been such a long-running topic of discussion if we, the Internet-addicted dopamine fiends hadn't wanted the news so badly. The story would have been on the front of the agenda setting papers, there would be a big deal for a few hours, and then something else would have happened -- hell, we may have even focused on what happened in Libya rather than what presidential candidates said about Libya (imagine that, right?).

In my view, the 24-hour news channels and the Internet are not only an interlocking loop of information, but a broadcast system which reflects what its viewers want to see. MSNBC leans left (or "forward" as their slogan says, matching President Obama's), Fox News veers sharply to the right, and CNN hovers somewhere in between. They know their audiences, and cater to their dopamine-curious viewers accordingly. These networks wouldn't exist if there was no audience with the hunger for their news. It seems that we, viewers and Internet users, are the new media agenda setters.