Social Media's Quick-Twitch Honesty Shows We Hardly Care About the Truth
If you move in liberal circles and followed the coverage of the Republican National Convention closely, the big takeaway from Paul Ryan’s speech last week would have been that it was stuffed with lies. The factory lie. The Medicare lie. The credit rating lie. The debt commission lie.
The outcry was immense – and intense – in some parts of Twitter and Facebook, and covered widely in the press, which expressed equal outrage. But Google’s search results suggest it ultimately may not even matter.
Before Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice president, even took the stage, the Romney campaign had figured that out that it can get away with, and even benefit from, playing fast and loose with the truth. A week ago today, one of Romney’s pollsters said: “We’re not going to let our campaign dictated by fact-checkers”.
That cynical approach seems to be supported by search activity during Ryan’s polarizing pronouncements. At a panel discussing social media’s impact on the 2012 election at the Democratic National Convention here in Charlotte yesterday, Google spokesman Daniel Sieberg pin-pointed three spikes in Google’s search traffic during Ryan’s speech. Search activity surged when Ryan mentioned his mom (“to this day, my mom is my role model”), when he talked about his playlist (“my playlist starts with AC/DC and it ends with Zeppelin”), and when he mocked Obama’s tired slogans (“Now all that’s left is a presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired”).
None of those utterances, you might notice, had anything to do with policy issues. None addressed a specific criticism of the President (being “adrift” is typical of the effective vaguery used in political speeches). And none showed off Ryan’s supposed mastery of legislative detail. Instead, they are statements that belong firmly in the realm of emotion. They help build a sense of character and biography while also taking down the opposition – which I guess is half of what a good political speech should do.
The search traffic during those moments proves that many people are more interested in the overall feel of the speech than its actual political import. All Ryan needed to do was glue a sense of “truthiness” to his autobiography and – voila! – 20 million viewers, a poll bump, and the love of his constituents.
Such sentiment was more difficult to measure before the age of social media. Twitter’s Adam Sharp said yesterday that in this election cycle we’re able to measure “natural conversation” for the first time – conversation that otherwise would have been confined to coffee shops and office water coolers. In that era, we had to rely on the mainstream media for political narratives. This time round, the data from the likes of Google and Twitter show that the conversation the press is having is often out of sync with what’s going on in the wider world.
But then, even Paul Ryan’s mom could have told you that.