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Gladwell, Sifry Stir Debate on Strength of Tea Party and Web Activism Fueling It

  |  September 28, 2010   |  Comments

Skeptics question strength of the tea party movement, and the social media horse it rode in on.

The tea party movement, and the social media activism horse it rode in on, are both facing skepticism from influential thinkers including Malcolm Gladwell.

To Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point" and "Outliers," online advocacy and cause-related actions in social media are moot compared to activism that propelled social upheavals like the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. Social media evangelists, he wrote in this week's The New Yorker, "seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960."

As Gladwell dismissed "the outsized enthusiasm for social media" in his essay, another leading thinker ripped into one of today’s most-hyped social media activism stories - that of the tea party movement's vaunted follower counts.

teapartypatriots-facebookMicah Sifry, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and a proponent of digital and social technologies in politics, challenged recent reports claiming Republicans are trouncing Democrats when it comes to their social media followings. Sifry argued in a recent post on PDF's TechPresident site, "while I don't doubt that there is more enthusiasm on the right side of the aisle about the coming November election, I don't think the online metrics are really so lopsided.”

In his post, Sifry pointed to recent reports tallying the Facebook and Twitter followers of candidates in midterm congressional races. He notes, "The evidence shows that there is more enthusiasm on the right for its congressional candidates than on the left…. But should we jump from that fact to concluding that the online right is now bigger than the online left? Or just that the average online backing for the current crop of Republicans is bigger than that for the average Democrat?"

Sifry - a supporter of progressive and liberal candidates and causes - argued that "the gap in online support is really more about the type of candidates on offer, and not just a sign of Republican challengers en masse doing better than Democratic incumbents." To prove his point, he compared traffic to the well-read liberal blog DailyKos with various conservative blogs, suggesting that because DailyKos gets more monthly unique visitors, "the online progressive base is still bigger than the online conservative base."

In a talk yesterday with ClickZ News, Sifry explained, "My post was not about which side is about to do a better job in the election. He aimed only to question the notion that the left's netroots have now been surpassed in number by tea party supporters online, he said. "It's about trying to measure accurately its size."

Social Media-Fueled Tea Party Victories

Sifry is "trying to undermine the tea party bottom-up movement," said Mindy Finn, a partner with Republican digital consulting firm Engage. "That whole argument is unproductive... It misses the big phenomenon."

In a September 26 post on The Next Right, Finn rebutted Sifry's argument. "The Right's strength online hinges on Tea Party activism, but it also includes excitement around the individual campaigns, and the efforts those campaigns are exerting to harness that enthusiasm," she wrote. "Regardless, the true measure of a movement's impact hinges on the number of people influenced to mobilize on the ground and vote. By this metric, Tea Party success this year has left little to debate or interpret."

Indeed, tea party activists - fueled in part by social media and community engagement - have recently helped elect primary candidates from outside the Republican party mainstream. Those recent victories echo earlier tea party triumphs, including the election of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown to a Senate seat long held by Democratic stalwart Ted Kennedy, and the defeat of incumbent Senator Bob Bennett in Utah’s Republican convention in June.

David Keating, executive director of anti-tax group Club For Growth believes the organization’s StopBobBennett page on Facebook was a key element in its campaign to unseat Bennett. According to Keating, the goal of the page was to drive anti-Bennett voters to attend the state's GOP caucus and vote there for anti-Bennett delegates to send to the Utah convention where the party's primary candidates are chosen.

"I think it played a major role," said Keating of the Bennett hit page on Facebook, which garnered over 4,800 likes, featured in-depth information on the complicated Utah election process, and prompted people to attend a caucus among other calls-to-action.

Rob Willington, Brown campaign new media director and partner at Swiftcurrent Strategies, often talks about the importance of social media-driven decentralization to the campaign's success. To decentralize campaigns and foster connections among groups of supporters, campaigns should set "up a social network like the [Ning-based] Brown Brigade, producing content on that network from the campaign," he stated in a Q&A for ClickZ's Digital Political Campaigns 101.

Brown Versus Gladwell

In his New Yorker essay, Gladwell states that "Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren't controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose." Surprisingly, he makes no mention of the tea party movement in the essay, though Gladwell's description of online social networks as groups with "loose" ties could easily apply.

"Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies," he continues, arguing that "if you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy."

The contention seems at odds with Willington's experience with the Brown campaign - which shocked observers by overcoming the entrenched Democratic party machine in Massachusetts. The campaign used Ning to facilitate regional events and enable communication among supporters, for example. "It's basically expanding responsibilities because people now have the power to communicate with each other and take the ball and run with it. Before they were just isolated activists and they could only do something unless they're completely connected with the campaign itself. But now they can connect with each other; natural leaders will just arise," he said.

During a September 25 panel at the AMP Summit in Washington D.C., Willington reiterated his belief that social media, and the Ning platform in particular, are important tools for candidate campaigns to spur real-world political actions like event attendance, canvassing, and voting.

Willington and many others have also stressed the importance of social media tools and communications in building momentum behind Howard Dean during his 2004 Democratic presidential primary run, and in President Obama's successful defeat of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primaries.

"There's a sentiment to what [Gladwell is] saying that I agree with, which is that demonstrable reforms rely on hierarchy, but you need a catalyst…and that's often a people-powered movement," Finn told ClickZ News. "The Internet creates a dynamic by which people can be part of the movement."

Gladwell is "really denouncing the tools," she said. "It reminds me of the old school campaign strategists who since the dawn of the internet push back on the need to innovate the way they campaign by saying that the internet doesn't win elections." She continued, "It's not the correct argument. The internet plays a role; but elections are about people... The internet has served as a facilitator and a means for more people to get involved in those movements in a more rapid way."

"Online is not a replacement for offline activism, nor should it be seen as in any way a competition to offline activism, " stated Chris Talbot, president of Talbot Digital, a digital consulting firm working with Democratic campaigns. "It's an enabler of offline activism…. You still need the core idea: a cause you care about and something you intend to do about it. Social tools simply make it easier to find and meet similar activists, and communicate your message and experience. "

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.

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