Saturday, February 9, 2013

Marc Antony's Internet

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears, I come to damn the Internet, not to praise it. The Net helps win elections but when it comes to lobbying Congress, it knifes us in the back. Et Tu, Facebook? Then fall, liberal.

What’s up with the disconnect? I think it’s simple. Political campaigns live on vitriol, hype, and honestly, a whole lotta lying. And, we focus, for the most part, on getting the choir revved up and voting.  Badmouthing the other team is effective.

Lobbying is tougher; we have to persuade someone, usually a (sort of) moderate Republican or Red State Democrat, to vote for something they are not so keen on.  But we can’t change reality: the GOP controls the House, and it takes 60 votes to shut off debate in the Senate, ergo, no law is passed without Republican support. Lobbying requires subtle, rational rhetoric, and while the Internet is many things, subtle and rational aren't among them..

So, what does the Internet get wrong?

1)      The Facebook Meme. You know the meme: those 15 word smart mouthed political cartoons folks share on Facebook. Behavioral psychologists find posting a Facebook meme makes us feel better, makes us feel like we are making a difference. But we aren’t.  Only our friends (who mostly agree with us) and our gun nut cousin (who will serve nicely as a troll for the comment feed) see the meme. Its impact in the real world is absolute zero. The more we post memes, the less likely we are to take real action. Can we please retire that meme with Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka? The first one was cute. The 10,535th was asinine.

2)      The Addiction to Online Petitions. Newsflash: no one in Congress reads them any longer. Congress gets thousands of them every year.  It’s overkill, and we need to grow up and…well…move on.

The biggest problem with the Internet petition is the messenger. Consider: Representative Nancy Pelosi wakes up tomorrow confronting a petition from the Christian Coalition or the Tea Party telling her she will burn in hell if she doesn’t renounce her stand on abortion. Will she become pro life, and call a televised press conference to recant her evil ways, or dismiss the petition as the fruit bat blathering of the opposition and get on with her day?            

Conversely, Speaker Boehner is unlikely to care when 1,000 MoveOn members call him a knuckle dragging troglodyte who must immediately support gun control or, well, we will log into Facebook and have Gene Wilder call him names.

It’s Marshall McLuhan with a twist: the sponsor of the petition IS the message, and Mr. Boehner will not be moved by “MoveOn” any more than Ms. Pelosi will swayed by the “Tea Party” or the  “Christian Coalition.”

3)      The Internet Makes us Solipsistic. We want every issue to be about OUR IMMEDIATE NEEDS, DAMNIT. But when we are trying to persuade someone who disagrees with us, we will be far more effective by taking a step back and considering how THEY view the world. Start where they are.

4)      Using Talking Points That Aren’t True. For every fact on the Internet there are 999 corresponding pieces of utter garbage. Congressional staffers know the issues, and when we feed them a load of bull, they know.

5)      Engaging in Pointless Political Arguments in Comment Threads. This is not just a colossal waste of time, it is scientifically proven that we generally wind up making our opponents strengthen their views.  The issue is “motivated reasoning” which, simply put, means that we use our emotions as well as our “rational brains” when considering facts. When facts run contrary to some deeply held belief, we tend to ignore the facts and run with the emotion.  Both Democrats and Republicans do this, so we cannot get all snotty about how progressives are smarter, because we are not. Conservatives deny climate change and liberals believe vaccines cause autism or that the 2004 election was stolen.

6)      Taking strong stands on issues on which our knowledge falls in the realm halfway between “jack” and “s***.” A general litmus test: if your knowledge of an issue is derived entirely from online sources, mostly 5 paragraphs in length  or shorter, and those august words reside on web sites where no journalist has ever pulled a paycheck, assume you are an idiot and get thee to a library.

We really can do better. Confession: I moved to DC to take a job as a lobbyist. I worked on higher education issues, and pushed for more graduate student grants and fewer loans. I made the transition from campaign staff loud mouth to a guy capable of something far more subtle. So can you. In the next post, ideas of how to lobby, correctly and… egad… effectively.

1 comment:

  1. It's not just about lobbying, however. The Internet is about ordinary, everyday social intercourse, every bit as messy and inefficient and artless as it is when we carry it out offline, yet never really drifting far from our social needs. It won't be scolded away, but it can be tweaked here and there, now and then, to strengthen constituencies for social ideas.