The Other Side of Democracy in the Digital Age

Curator's Note

 One of the central narratives that developed during this past election cycle, was the enabling, often even liberating, effect new media technologies were having on the election process. Indeed one could claim, and I certainly think this is the case, that Barack Obama was able to win only by leveraging these networked technologies effectively. Given this condition it should not come as a surprise that most see these new media tools as having a positive effect on participatory democracy. Leveraging these new digital media enable more people than ever to voice their opinions, brings a new level of transparency to government, and fosters increased communication between constituents and representatives. In most regards I would agree with these observations, that these digital media can substantially alter the way democracy operates (see for example this prior clip I hosted on the YouTube debates), but there is also a seedy side to politics in the networked age. Technology plus mobs does not necessarily equate with "Smart Mobs," instead sometimes what you get is just a really, really, dangerous, "Dumb Mob."

Take for instance this clip filmed outside of a McCain/Palin rally in Strongsville, OH. As the election day approached and poll watchers painted an increasingly bleak picture for McCain/Palin supporters, the intensity of the anti-Obama rhetoric grew. On the one hand this is just an amped up version of the emails which circulated during the primaries accusing Obama of being a Muslim or suggesting he was not an American citizen; political rumors and disinformation campaigns have perhaps always been a part of the election process. But, on the other hand it seems to me that these digital technologies are amplifying the noise, and perhaps the danger. The "McCain-Palin Mob" was partly an effect of mainstream media coverage, Palin speaking at one location in Florida is broadcast to Denver supporters before she even speaks there, so that the hate and anger in her stump speech pre-fuels her supporters if you will before the day of the rally (she serves as her own warm-up act), or factor in the role of hate radio (Hannity and Rush). But the mainstream media coverage was also I would suggest enhanced by these sort of YouTube videos which demonstrated the very real effects of this hate rhetoric, and while viewers such as myself might have been appalled by such footage (indeed most of these videos were filmed and uploaded by Obama supporters attempting to document the atmosphere outside the rallies) I cannot help but think the existence of these videos also emboldened others who saw this as an affirmation of their negative views (demonstrators in Denver enhanced by the clip of demonstrators in Ohio), which perhaps was again amplified by the mainstream media which played these clips and disseminated them to an even wider audience. Welcome to Hyperdemocracy.



 From what I understand, the standard trope in electoral politics is that negative campaigning works better for conservatives than liberals because negative campaigns diminish the turnout of progressives. When the tactic is turned on conservatives, on the other hand, they become more emboldened. I wonder about this with regards to your video and your comments. Indeed, when the GOP picked Palin, a person who was both willfully ignorant and portrayed as such the McCain ticket on a new energy, and this video was it. 

I am not sure that I would associate the "mob effect," or the mob effect in a hyperconnected world with any particular political orientation. It seems more of an result of hypermediation than ideological leanings. I don't think we would have had to push very hard on the demonstrations that took place post election against the passing of Prop 8 to have those turn dangerous. I don't think the McCain camp had this in mind at all, and they quickly lost control of it. Notice how despite McCain's intervention in MN with the woman who called him an Arab these violent vitriolic behaviors continued.  

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