The idealistic futurists of the 1950s imagined a 21st century America filled with flying cars and domed cities, a place where poverty, war, and disease were no more. They didn't envision an America where people were connected by a worldwide computer network. But once internet access became widespread, the future-predicting community immediately began to talk about how the internet was going to revolutionize politics and governments. Needless to say, they are just as wrong about the internet as their futurist forebears were about the Jetsons.
In the late 1990s, the talk of the online world revolved around "digital town halls" and how the internet would change how Americans vote and how they interact with their political leaders once they were elected. Instead, what we've ended up with are politicians and their handlers making clumsy efforts at online outreach and, more often than they care to admit, making terrible mistakes in the process.
Last year, Anthony Weiner made headlines when he was caught tweeting naked pictures of himself to a woman who was not his wife. After first claiming that his account was hacked — a common go-to excuse for politicos — he stepped down from his congressional seat when it became apparent that no such hacking took place. Perhaps bolstered by the success of Mark Sanford, whose own indiscretions at least occurred in real life, Weiner reemerged this year to run for mayor of New York City. Despite insisting that he had learned his lesson, Weiner was caught sending additional sexts to at least one other woman.
Sextual misadventures are not the only things tripping up politicians struggling to navigate the new super-connected political world. In North Carolina last year, a General Assemblyman's account tweeted, "They should lock up all the gays on their own island. Except for the lesbians. Y'all can have them." The tweet was quickly deleted and the Assemblyman's people said his account had been hacked; they even filed a police report. More recently, the Western North Carolina GOP disowned a "rogue" account following a series of inflammatory tweets. This rogue account at times tweeted the same things as the official state GOP account, word for word, at nearly the same time.
Closer to home, Nancy Mace, an ex-FITSNews.com financier and one of Lindsey Graham's primary opponents found herself in trouble when her campaign retweeted, and quickly deleted, a tweet calling incumbent Sen. Graham a "Nancy boy." When pressed, Mace stated A) she doesn't run her own Twitter account and B) she was ultimately responsible for what happened on her Twitter account.
I am not sure what is more worrisome: that politicians and political operatives are so bad at covering up their stupidity, or that they take Twitter quite so seriously. Even at its best, it's still only useful for really short online fights about nothing or telling everyone what you had for dinner.
One common thread in these cases is the immediate attempt by the politician to disassociate himself from the tweet. Whether it's claiming that they were hacked, that an intern did it, or that the account the tweet came from wasn't official, the defense is always the same, time-tested one: deny everything.
Of course, that excuse worked fairly well back in the olden days when a politician could simply deny that he had made a mistake and no one would ever know better, but these days their past mistakes are just a Google search away. Just ask Nancy Mace's fellow primary candidate S.C. state Sen. Lee Bright, who apparently thought he could simply delete his embarrassing 2012 campaign video "Defeat the Liberal Empire" from YouTube and pretend it didn't happen. The internet doesn't quite work that way, and politicians need to understand that. They don't, and that's one reason they shouldn't bother using it. Perhaps if Mace knew that there is now a website devoted to caching deleted tweets from politicians, she would give better instructions to whichever unpaid PR hack runs her online presence (here's a hint: retweet nothing, ever).
You'll note by now that I am not using the term "social media" to describe the online deeds of the men and women who would rule us. That's because it's a meaningless buzz word. How do I know that? Because people in public relations use it, and they are paid by campaigns to manage their "presence" online. Politicians would better serve themselves and the public by firing their "social media" staff and hiring serious people who want to do serious policy work. Maintaining a meaningless Twitter account is not public policy; it's public relations.
In much the same way that we never got flying cars and jet packs, we are still far short of a meaningful electronic society. Instead of thinking about meaningful ways the internet can impact politics, we get just another celebrity sideboob extravaganza. This isn't the revolution; this is the dying gasp of a lost culture.