Reaching the ‘other’ – why being popular in social media doesn’t work for politicians

Struggling unknown seeks funding

Struggling unknown seeks funding

The great thing about being an artist is that – if you’re lucky enough to find a bunch of people willing to buy what you produce – you need never compromise your principles.

If you do – by, for example, selling what you make via a major distributor – your core fans may call you a sell-out even as you achieve broader appeal.

But artists often do need to compromise on their original vision because some of their ideas are very expensive.

Getting the opportunity to make your movie through Warner Brothers or Disney will come with a bunch of caveats. These big brands need to fund enormous companies and do so through only one or two major hits a year. A big hit, by definition, requires a big audience.

And satisfying many people at the same time does require neutralising things. You can’t assume that people will understand your obscure references to sixteenth century philosophy, or some niche science fiction reference.

That chafes for some artists and they have taken to social media and Kickstarter.

The result has been movies like “Anomalisa” by Charlie Kaufman, or Rob Thomas’ “Veronica Mars”, or even Zach Braff’s “Wish I was here”.

This direct relationship between the artist and their fans is tremendous. You, as a fan, get exactly what you want, and they, as the artist, get to scale their ambition according to the cost their fans can support.

This does not work for politicians.

Recognising the ‘other’

The season of politics we’re all watching – be it Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the US – has been fascinating.

All these politicians have called out “mainstream media” as being contrary to their interests and declaring that they can build a direct relationship with voters through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Which is true, as far as it goes, but not meaningful.

Twitter and social media make it extremely easy for people to create bubbles for themselves. Resonance chambers in which they hear nothing but their own opinions reflected back to them.

That works well for an artist, but not for a politician.

Think of it like this. Imagine that getting the opportunity to produce a movie required the same process as getting the opportunity to govern. An artist would have to win a majority of voters to get the opportunity to work.

That would require that they win over not only those who already like them, but also those who’ve never heard of them, or have and aren’t interested.

In the free market system, everyone can sell movies and people can buy more than one. They can be fans of many, often contradictory, artists

Being a representative of 1% of a particular genre can make a musician extremely wealthy. It won’t make you president.

That can be reversed.

When the 1% turn on the artist, they can instantly cause that artist to recant and change. That’s why social media campaigns against particular individuals or businesses seem to result in such immediate and spectacular climb-downs.

It’s also why politicians seem to be peculiarly tin-eared to noisy protests. Because the 1% is not representative.

Reaching the ‘other’

In the run-up to the 2008 UK General Election, Nick Clegg – leader of the tiny Liberal Democrats – managed to secure himself a place in the television debates between the leaders of the UK’s two venerable and dominant Conservative and Labour Parties.

He achieved an astonishing bounce in popularity.

In one moment he broke out of his own bubble and proved to the ‘others’ that he didn’t have horns.

This often happens where competing politicians have demonised a foe. No-one on earth lives up to that sort of hype.

If you think of some of the things US Republicans have said about Barack Obama, they’re not particularly hard to discredit. All Obama has to do is turn up and be nice. He wins.

On the other hand, if a politician refuses to talk to anyone outside his or her own resonance chamber then they relinquish the opportunity to change the tone of the discussion.

Worse, since they never leave their 1% they never learn what people outside that bubble may want.

Politics is not about serving a minority. It’s about serving all.

Cut your support base too fine and you won’t get elected. For those inside the bubble, that comes as a shock. After all, “everyone” they know agrees. Obviously the system must be broken if their chosen candidate didn’t win.

If you want to reach the ‘other’ – if you want them to hear your side and listen to your ideas – you need to talk to them. In this age – as in many others – the best way is still the mainstream media.

Politicians need to talk to newspapers or media services that represent people who wouldn’t normally vote for them. Not because that means they agree with the platform, but because they have a duty to reach out to people who disagree with them.

The danger is that politicians who remain entirely inside their bubble become so outraged when they lose an election that they decide to subvert democracy entirely. When you look at coups in Africa (the most recent in Burkina Faso) you’ll see countries with little media freedom resulting in dangerous echo chambers.

For better or worse, democratic rule requires the consent of the majority to being governed.

An honest politician needs to talk most especially to those who do not agree.

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