Is social media contributing to political paralysis?

I’m a student of history … probably half the books I read are biographies or something to do with a past era.  So today I’d like you to oblige me while I connect the dots between the social media revolution and what appears to be increasing political paralysis in the U.S., India, Greece, and other nations.

My impression is that political leaders of past decades were no less competitive, egotistical, or power-hungry than the politicians of today. They were probably less demographically-diverse, less educated, and less in tune with constituents because of the lag time in communications before the Internet.

It’s hard to compare apples to apples, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that there has indeed been a shift, and politicians today are less able to find compromise that helps keep a country moving in the right direction.  How might we explain the change?

Could there be a paralyzing effect of social media?

Last year I had a fascinating discussion with a bright young man who devised a way to compare the political sentiment on the social web in Iceland with the public positions taken by his country’s politicians.  He could then match the data to see which politicians had positions that most closely compared to the sentiment of the nation.

Once the politicians found out about this, they started stopping by his office frequently to compare scores … and change positions if necessary. Today of course, this is possible to do on a minute-by-minute basis.

There is a certain beauty in this. Politicians in a democracy are supposed to be representing the will of the people.  Isn’t this real-time feedback exactly what they need?

But I wonder about the possible advantage in a political process 50 years ago when politicians had to use their best judgment instead of real-time “polling” to make a decision.  I can imagine leaders in the 1950s locking themselves behind a door and pounding out a compromise without the shifting sands of social media sentiment to contend with.

Wouldn’t it be easier to keep their focus on an issue instead of jockeying for position on Twitter every day?

Wouldn’t it be easier to take an unpopular position (like cutting entitlement programs to balance a budget) if you only had to deal with the outfall every four years instead of every day?

So I could see both sides of this argument, but the one thing we do know is that the social web is not going to go away.

What do you think? In the long-term, will the constant “polling” of social media sentiment analysis contribute to debilitating political paralysis or more enlightened political accountability?

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  • To answer your final question, I believe it will be debilitating. Those less informed and not needing to make the choices that “get it done” being allowed to drive the process will bring progress to a halt.

    However, I’m not going to lay that blame on social media, rather I put some of the blame on media pulling a story out of everything and striving to one-up competing coverage in order to garner ratings. Social, and individuals having their own stations of sorts, is just the latest wrinkle that has been layered on.

    The effectiveness of our political system didn’t nosedive with the introduction of Twitter or Facebook. The court of public opinion and party politics existed long before we learned to converse in 140 characters.

    We, the people, or not likely to change. The question is, will our politicians find a way to change? If not, I fear the ride ahead.

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  • An important point that the frenzied competition of the mainstream media probably has affected politics more than anything. Competition is not all bad, especially when it drives people to dig for the real story, but I agree about the impact. Gone are the days when the press “protected” politicians. Thank goodness! Thanks for the great comment Eric!

  • I am sure social media has not helped, but I agree that this procrastination has been around for a while.

    As a youngster, I grew up with the idea of capitalism vs communism, even before I really knew what they were. We were given the oft-quoted line about communism being one of the best ideas that doesn’t work.

    What I did understand was that the two main parties in Britain had strong ideaologies that drove them: the tories were blue blooded capitalists and Labour were socialists – a sort of workable communism.

    The reality was that capitalism had no social conscience and socialism had too much. Since the eighties, we have seen politicians of all persuasions trying to find some middle ground and changing with the wind according to how the public mood was deemed to be.

    I, for one, would be happy to see more defined leadership. Yes it is a changing world and the pace of that change seems to be ever increasing, but surely the guiding priciples by which we live don’t change much, do they?

    I also agree that the media has a huge part to play and their self-righteous, scare-mongering, inaccurate, ill-researched, ill-thought-out and ever-changing loyalty and direction has an embarassingly paralysing effect on our politicians, makes us lazy and, in itself, is an example of procrastination.

    With reference to social media, Obama was said to have done very well with Twitter during his presidential campaign. However, my presumption is that he was broadcasting – even though the medium was new, the communication was still mostly one way.

    In office, however, decisions have perhaps taken longer. This is certainly true in the UK. And that is partly because when the messages are coming the other way there is so much noise that you could get a different story every minute of the day. If you are trying to make sense of this noise in real time, you would go mad.

    Yes, politicians are supposed to represent us, and we certainly want to give the feedback and make our voices heard, but you can’t lead by trying to incorporate every single opinion. Social media gives everyone a voice and no two voices are the same, so, in effect, we don’t have a majority anymore.

    This is a unknown territory for politicians, no wonder they are struggling. I am going to stop writing now, because the more I write, the more worried I am.

  • Karen Bice

    I think social media is like any other media, it can be be debilitating, but I think it will prove to be more positive. When you look back in U.S. history after the revolution, newspapers and pamphlets were used politically by government and business leaders then as now, to either demonize individuals or issues in ways that are still done today. For most of us without political power and the means to get it, social media is proving to be one way to voice opinions and to persuade leaders to listen to their constituents about important issues, such as SOPA and the recent Komen debacle. One issue that is still being played out is the issue of religion, contraception and healthcare. I for one am fed up with women’s health issues being used as a weapon on the political battlefield for votes and funding.

    PS I had a hard time logging in to post a comment. For some reason, Disqus wouldn’t allow me to sign in using Twitter. 🙁 Nice post, Mark.

  • Barry, this is truly an exceptional comment and commentary. It is a superb blog post in its own right and I thank you for that.

    In fact you open up so many interesting topics here we could debate all day.  The one aspect I will pick up is this idea of this undefinable quality of laziness that is creeping into not just politics and journalism but society in general. How do you measure that? I don;t know but here is an artifact of the culture — Pinterest.

    Just in the few years I have been blogging I have seen this steady dumbing-down of content. Blogging started out as real conversation and debate (I still aim for that with varying degrees of success!)

    But people didn’t want debate. That takes too much time. They wanted sound bites. So blogs became shorter and shorter until they degraded mostly into numbered “lists.”  

    But that was too complicated to digest. So lists degraded into infographics  — so we barely have to read at all!

    But infographics are still too complex for many. The next logical step is Instagram or Pinterest. Look!  Pretty pictures!

    I am not being sarcastic. I truly believe this is what is happening. What comes after Pinterest? The painter Mondrian comes to mind. Lines and primary colors. The conversation is over.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! 

  • First, apologies for the technical problem and thank you for your tenacity Karen. 

    I love this point you make about the continuum of media over centuries. I actually write about this some in my new book. I didn’t realize that at the time of the American Revolution, the New England colonies probably had the highest literacy rate on earth and the most newspapers per capita. And yet, the only way to really get the word out was to knock on somebody’s door!  That was “viral” 225 years ago! The choices, and the density of communication today is mind-boggling. That amount of change, in this short period of time, cannot help but have a dramatic effect on “We the People.”  Thanks!

  • I think you’re on to something, and it’s not just politics. Businesses and organizations do the same thing. Look at recent issues with Komen, etc, and we may find that we get to a point where businesses will always go for the safe move, knowing that there could be an incredibly loud and fast outcry on Twitter, etc. And if we’re safe, whether it be in politics or business, as you point out, we avoid things that we think “might” be unpopular. It stifles innovation and creativity. 

  • I think Pinterest is fundamentally different than blogging. With pinterest, it’s more about curating and content discovery then about arguing or debating issues. It just seems more like a social bookmarking site for visual things.

    And a picture is worth 1,000 words, after all.

    As for whether social media will help or harm democracy… it seems like the loudest minority will be listened to, or the people with the most followers or highest Klout score. Kind of like it is now, but with less money spent on lobbyists. And if two groups are both arguing very loudly against each other, which side does the politician take? Probably the safest side.

  • To be clear, I’m not dissing Pinterest. It is what it is, and if people love and it makes money, great.  I’m just pointing to its role as part of a progression of simpler and simpler content.

    On your second point, I agree. This type of social proof is so important. Unbelievably important. I have a blog post in the queue on this subject. Thanks Tanith!

  • I have been thinking about this a lot too Ken. I look at the outcry over the McDonalds Twitter experiment. WAY overblown. When a few people can hijack the outcome of an experiment, why even try?  Are we heading for a vanilla future?

  • Gregbo

    Great post!!
    I’d agree with debilitating… todays’ politicians are afraid to make any decision (let alone a difficult or controversial one) because they fear the backlash… unfortunately that backlash is not always from those they were elected to represent (their constituents) but those in the blog/twittersphere that shout the loudest – regardless of where they live…

    I’d love to have congress locked in a room without phones, or access to the outside world for just one week… I believe they’d find all kinds of compromise and move many stalled projects forward.  

  • Your comment — “I’d love to have congress locked in a room without phones, or access to the outside world for just one week”
    … that’s pretty much the way it used to be! : ) 

    Can you imagine trying to have the personal courage do what needs to be done in Greece right now while your aides are whispering the latest Twitter sentiments in your ear all day?

    Thanks Greg! 

  • This is a post near and dear to my heart since I’m going to be a Senator (Tony Bennett for Senate will be a tough campaign to beat). Your points actually opened up my eyes to a few things I hadn’t considered.

    My thought going into had been listen to what the people want, find out what’s most important, and I’ll win over the masses. But then, I’d be no different than most flip-flopping politicians. If we’re too dependant on the opinions voiced over social media, we lose our vision and worry about making everyone happy… Which sounds like a recipe for disaster!

  • Thank you Mark for your enlightening thoughts, and great debate/discussion from your community! 

    I truly believe once the “tech players” find their core value, their niche, and their truth — we are headed towards “more enlightened political accountability” 

  • Jen Zingsheim

    Politicians are supposed to do more than just reflect the “will of the people”–at least in a representative republic, they are. We are not a direct democracy–by design and for good reason. I’m a Poli sci major so forgive the dive into what some would consider minutia: Federalist #10 specifically lays out why we have representatives. In addition to reflecting the needs of the majority, they are supposed to make sure that the voices of the minority are heard too. The majority are not always right. It took profound courage for legislators to vote against the will of their constituencies to pass the Civil Rights Act.

    In short, if social media takes us closer to a direct democracy, I think that is a bad thing. 

    From Federalist #10: “The latent causes of
    faction are thus sown in the nature
    of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of
    according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for
    opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other
    points, as
    well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders
    ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of
    descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human
    passions, have,
    in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual
    animosity, and
    rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to
    co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of
    mankind to
    fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion
    itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been
    sufficient to
    kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • Jen Zingsheim

     Huh, sorry about the formatting; thought I fixed that…

  • RIGHT!  Young Jedi you have much to learn, but the Force in you is strong.

  • One of my favorite quotes is from U.S. Sec of State Hillary Clinton who said “This is a terrible time to be a control freak.” Transparency in government? Yes? Transparency of the process? Can we handle the truth? : ) 

  • So here is the mind game I like to play … Would we have passed the Civil Rights Act if we had the social web as we have it today?

    I think so … I hope so. But those elected officials could vote and then walk out the door to relative silence. Their constituents were hundred of miles away. We didn’t even have voice mail. What if they faced the furor of a million voices every day? How would this nation be different?  I guess we’re going to find out.

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  • Thank you Mark for your very important question… 
    “You can’t handle the truth” by Jack Nicholson in “A Few Great Men” shook me then, and still does…  My hunch is we’ll know when we learn how-to “handle the truth” without being defensive, and retaliatory.    
    Enjoy your weekend…  ~Rae?

  • Thank you Yoda, errr I mean Mark. I’m a willing student and who knows, maybe in a few years I’ll be able to harness the force!

  • Mark – thanks for your thoughtful post. My 2 cents..
    Introduction of new mediums/ tools often brings forth a period of flux which
    leads us to question the merits. Consider how Radio transformed politics under
    FDR and the first televised presidential debates, which helped propel Senator Kennedy against a sitting VP Richard Nixon.


    I suspect it’s too early to call the true influence of
    social media – negative or positive – on current state of politics and policy.
    Sure, back in the day politicians had more breathing room – opportunities to deliberate
    and engage in protracted debates without the pressures of constant spotlight
    (C-SPAN cameras, 24 hours news coverage, real time quarterbacking on twitter
    etc). But in my mind that also raises images of smoke filled back room deals.


    Politicians will do what they’ve always done – figure out
    which way the wind is blowing and align themselves with positions that they
    think will get them re-elected. Both parties have relied on polling data for
    decades to make decisions and take strategic positions on everything from foreign
    policy to domestic issues. I would much rather that they act on the raw ‘polling’
    of millions of citizen voicing their opinions directly and in real time vs. the
    sanitized responses of a selected group of people in a room answering questions
    and speaking for the rest of us.


    I acknowledge the concerns you’ve brought forth in your post
    and agree its going to take time for us effectively use this medium to help
    drive vs. hinder progress. It is also going to bring out the best and worst in
    people and our process. But can we deny the awesomeness of social activism as
    recently witnessed during the SOPA/ PIPA debates?!


    For years now, I’ve volunteered on campaigns and with non
    profit organizations to drive voter turnout but more importantly civic engagement
    among my fellow Gen Y’ers. And for the first time, I’m starting to see that my friends
    are aware, interested and even starting to engage in what they always referred
    to ‘boring’ politics. If social media helps force greater transparency, dialogue,
    accountability and grassroots engagement – I say bring it on and we’ll work
    thru the perils and disruption.

    Thanks for the post. It sure generated some stimulating conversation among me and my friends this Saturday afternoon 🙂

  • What a wonderful and thought-provoking response.  I think your point about SM creating awareness and even enthusiasm for politics is excellent and I agree with you. The one thing I am still stuck on though is the idea of opening up the doors of the “back room deals.”  The image of that process is very negative yet secret negotiations, winks and handshake deals are part of a human process to get things done in a political process.  

    I have never been in politics, but I have negotiated immense contracts worth billions of dollars. High stakes. High emotions. Negotiating something like this is like making sausage — you just don’t want to know what’s in it. It’s an ugly process that hopefully will make something great in the end. I’ve often thought about, what would that process be like if I walked out of the meeting room and had cameras in my face?  Or if people were reporting on the negotiations over Facebook and Twitter?  Would we ever get anything done or would we be in an on-going process to save face and manage buzz that create paralysis?

    I really think that is what we’re seeing in politics today. Sometimes the smoky back rooms are not all bad.

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