Stu Stevens won’t hear a Who
If there are enough interviews like this one with Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, maybe wrong-headed social media thinking by insiders will be laid bare faster and die out sooner.
Stevens comments on reader-driven narratives reveal some of the bad social media assumptions that weaken traditional institutions. When crowds use social tools to become more than consumers of news, institutions that think like this will be blindsided every time.
In today’s environment, Stevens said, “news is whatever people decide news is.”“I don’t think that there is a legitimacy litmus test that you can put on it,” he said. “The question that news organizations have to ask themselves and do ask themselves every day is what kind of news do we want to validate?”
Stories like the “47%” video and Romney’s “binders full of women” fumble “took on lives of their own online,” according to CNN’s Reliable Sources interview of Stevens. They definitely did, and social media definitely accelerated and sustained them. But just because the audience has more influence in the digital commons doesn’t mean they can hijack entire narratives, or spin them from whole cloth.
Stevens complains that socially sustained stories lack legitimacy and validation from gatekeeper institutions. But Twitter didn’t decide candidate Romney was out of touch with the middle and working classes. He was. Tumblr didn’t concoct a gender problem for Romney. He had one. Online, on the radio, or in print, a good story lives longer because there’s an authentic public interest in it. You can’t tweet a dud meme. And it’s getting harder and harder to sell fake news.
So, besides sour-graping and the general bafflement in Romney’s too-bunkered campaign post-election, what’s going on? Why do seasoned campaigners persist in believing that Twitter and YouTube have brainwashed the public into irrational group-think? (Besides the elephant-in-the-room reason, I mean, that veteran political strategists already think of the public as brainwash fodder.)
It might be because old power always sees new power as indistinguishable from anarchy. “It can’t be real unless it’s our reality.”
It might be that old guard political thinking wants to flatter the media in the hopes that the media will help hold down the fort. “Don’t buy what social media is selling, Howard, you owe it to your profession to keep your head in the sand” (or at least, according to this this thoughtful commentary by Jay Rosen, to sit idly by to avoid embarrassment).
Or it might be that Stevens is no different than any brand manager late in learning to listen at the new social frequency. There’s a signal in the noise and it obeys most of the same rules as previous human information-sharing. Social media doesn’t hijack public narratives; it’s more like a mid-air refueling. And the plane has been in the air for a while now.