Belding: In using technology for politics, remember that politics happens in public

Michael Belding

Over the past several months, I have learned that more often than not in 2012 success in journalism and providing news is measured in how quickly a writer can post something — anything — to a website and link to the zygote of a story on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets, as well has how many Internet hits the story receives along with its Facebook and Twitter recommendations.

With some 552 million daily users of Facebook and some 141 million Twitter users in the United States, that is not surprising. Quickly disclosed, fast-paced news ending with promises of continued updates encourages readers to keep coming back. And buttons conveniently located at the top or bottom of a story allow readers to effortlessly tweet about or recommend it on Facebook.

It is also not surprising, then, politicians often entice supporters and potential supporters with exclusive content based on their subscriptions to text messages, use of a custom-made smartphone app or campaign videos posted online. After all, social media is now probably the fastest way to get in touch with millions of people.

The latest person to capitalize on those facts in a high-profile way is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president of the United States. Last week his campaign announced supporters and politicos could be the first to know who is his vice presidential pick by downloading the iPhone and Android app “Mitt’s VP.” Romney’s campaign is not the first presidential one to do such a thing, however. I can still clearly recall the enthusiasm my friends and I all had when then-Sen. Barack Obama announced the identity of his vice presidential candidate would be revealed in a text message.

It was really cool to be (or at least, to think I was) among the first people to know who the future vice president of the United States might be. It was like being in an elite club.

That was four years ago.

Today I realize that this sort of communication, even though it makes for fast, effective, targeted communication between candidates and prospective voters, fails to provide real political dialogue between the two groups. Simply put, politics is just as much a verb as it is a noun; it is an activity people do. And it happens in public, where people can see it.

As helpful as emails and text messages from important political candidates are, they are no substitute for the real deal. Every two years, the American people have an opportunity to hold their elected representatives accountable. Every two years (more often for state and local officials), public office holders have to go home and explain why they did what they did and, if asked, answer hard-hitting questions about their decisions. It would be a waste of energy and thought to reply to an email or text message sent to millions of subscribers. Responding to announcements sent via an app for your phone would be even more difficult.

So instead of courting voters by meeting them and exchanging a few sentences, the most important candidates for the most important public offices in this country are wooing them (and in many cases, sweeping them off their feet) by giving them VIP access to what used to be ordinary news.

The trouble with that (aside from the problems mentioned a moment ago) is this: News is a prerequisite to political action. Sir Francis Bacon’s oft-quoted adage that “knowledge is power” is absolutely true; Machiavelli’s prince can maintain his rule over his city if and only if he has enough knowledge to play one faction off against the other. Early announcement to exclusive groups of supporters is a neat idea. It makes people feel included, and it is a good way to farm phone numbers, email addresses and app uses.

The thing to remember is that it is a poor substitute for actually appearing in public. Newt Gingrich’s campaign suspension at the beginning of May is an example of the phenomenon being taken too far. In a soft-spoken video that quickly went almost viral from its inclusion in news stories from such sources as NPR, Gingrich said to supporters that he was giving them “an insider advance notice” of his departure from the race. The announcement was of course quickly shown to the rest of us and made superfluous anything he could say on the actual day of his campaign’s suspension.

There was none of what ought to go into a candidate’s announcement that he is no longer seeking office. There was no public appearance, no long-awaited appearance in front of a crowd holding its breath and none of the conciliatory rhetoric that often goes with such events. Gingrich was not required to display the same grace others such as Sen. John McCain have: His words on the night of November 4, 2008, ring true still: “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that. It is natural. It’s natural, tonight, to feel some disappointment. But tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again.”

Such words would not be necessary with a private announcement via text, email or app. If our country’s offices are truly to be public, their pursuit also needs to be done in public.