Published in the Wednesday, November 7, 2012 edition of the Ventura County Star
In addition to exploding prior campaign spending records — presently estimated at an obscene $2.6 billion — this presidential election also upped the ante in terms of social media.
After the first presidential debate between Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, Twitter recorded 10.3 million messages — making the debate the most tweeted-about event in American politics.
On Oct. 5, a number of folks on Facebook updated their status with "Who says Romney has never performed menial labor. He mopped the floor with Barack last night."
Clever? It depends. Reason to unfriend the poster? Hardly.
Yet, nearly 1 in 5 respondents to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project polls admitted to "unfollowing," "blocking," "unfriending" or employing the "hide" button — to eliminate unwelcome political postings.
Approximately 60 percent of American adults use social networking sites, with 66 percent of those users — or 39 percent of all American adults — characterizing their participation as "political activity."
If you can't imagine social networking sites as politically powerful, the Pew study claims not only 36 percent of users find them "very" or "somewhat important" in keeping up with political news but also 25 percent admit becoming more politically active after reading posts or discussing issues on Twitter or Facebook.
With profound apologies to Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach, the following are my observations of the good, the bad and the ugly in social media.
The good: social media messages can improve voter turnout. Not only did the Pew Center find that 35 percent of users (more Democrats than Republicans) employ social media to encourage people to vote, but the journal Nature also reported a demonstrable impact on voter turnout from a special "get out the vote" message on Facebook.
The bad: you're being followed. The 2012 presidential campaign was able to capitalize on increasingly sophisticated data-mining techniques pioneered by online retail advertisers. As a result, customized ads — based on the digital trails left by prospective voters as they sought information about specific political issues — popped up everywhere.
In fact, according to Evidon, during the final weeks of the presidential race, both campaigns drastically increased their use of third-party surveillance engines. From May to September, Evidon identified 97 tracking programs — far more than the average retailer employs — on Obama and Romney sites.
Consumer advocates warn that the proliferation of such trackers raises serious risks. Not only could the data concerning people's political beliefs be sold but it might also be used for purposes inconceivable by the public — like excluding someone from a job search.
The ugly: political self-expression can backfire, and cause rifts that may not be mended — even after the election is over.
"It's a cultural truism that you don't talk about politics and religion if you're with people you don't know very well," Purdue communications professor Glenn Sparks told the South Bend Tribune. "You navigate … with caution."
Yet, a politically charged Facebook or Twitter message — and 1 out of 3 users post them — may reach thousands, with the author having no way of knowing how the communication might be received.
Most consumers of social media don't object to being exposed to differing political opinions. It's the ad hominem attacks, the over-the-top negativity and the polarizing rhetoric that turns them off. The political dust-up between singer Hank Williams, Jr. and actor Alec Baldwin is a perfect example.
The precipitating event was an Iowa State Fair performance in which the countrymusic legend slammed the president with the words "Obama is a Muslim who hates farming, hates the military and hates the U.S. and we hate him." His audience, by the way, gave Williams a rousing round of applause.
Baldwin instantly responded in 140-character bursts. If Williams weren't such a "pathetic, wheezing fossil," he tweeted, "I'd have a talk with him. I think we need to call Hank Williams Jr. what he is … a broken down, senile, racist coot." His 8,789 followers agreed.
For consumers of social media who are sick and tired of propaganda polluting their news feeds, there's a Facebook page that purports to be "Open to all conservatives, liberals and moderates who are tired of the constant stream of political posts on FB. Doesn't mean that your views are not important — just means that it isn't important to us to hear you blather on. P.S. You do realize that you really aren't changing anyone's opinion, right?"
Finally, for those determined to operate off the political grid entirely, a technological solution called Unpolitic.me not only blocks all political updates from Twitter and Facebook, but also replaces them with photos of cats.
So rejoice. It's finally TGIN7. At least, be happy that the star of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" won't be speaking to any more empty chairs.