Several recent events have shown the traditional media and Democratic Party have lost control of the political narrative in this country. The conservative new media and online social networking sites have taken issues as presented by the Left and neutralized or defeated their efforts. It is important to analyze these cases for elements of success so we can replicate them in the future. By using a sociological concept called “critical mass theory” we can efficiently refute the Left’s political points in the future and bring balance back to the debate. First, let’s analyze Romney’s dog versus Obama’s.
An “Obama Eat Dog” World
From the Washington Post, April 26, 2012, ‘Twitter becomes a key real-time tool for campaigns,’ by Karen Tumulty. This reporter explains how the quick response by citizen activists and bloggers blocked the Obama administration’s strategy of smearing Romney as a callous man.
“In the past week, for instance, Romney communications director Eric Fehrnstrom noticed a blog post unearthing a passage from Obama’s 1995 autobiography, in which the future president recalled eating dog meat as a child in Indonesia.
Fehrnstrom posted a link to it on Twitter, and it quickly made it onto the Web sites of major news organizations — giving the Romney campaign a rejoinder to the constant tweaking it has gotten over another long-ago episode, in which the former Massachusetts governor transported his own dog to Canada in a crate atop his car.
Indeed, Fehrnstrom’s post included a “retweet” of one months earlier by Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod, in which Axelrod had posted a picture of the president riding in the back of his limousine with his dog, Bo, as an example of “how loving owners transport their dogs.”
“In hindsight,” Fehrnstrom wrote, “a chilling photo.”
And as a result, that obscure passage from a 17-year-old book suddenly looked newsworthy enough to merit mention in outlets that ranged from the New York Times and Washington Post to ABC News.”
Indeed, I was on Twitter when this occurred. The conservative Twitter-verse exploded, mocking Obama eating dog meat including use of the hashtag #Obamadogrecipes. This entire episode at first appears silly, but it’s not. The Obama campaign had been preparing a particular smear involving a dog named Seamus.
Seamus as Victim
In the Washington Examiner, Byron York reports:
“In 1983, Romney took his family on vacation and, faced with a packed station wagon, put his Irish setter Seamus in a travel kennel strapped to the roof of the car. Romney constructed a special windshield in an effort to make the dog more comfortable, but Seamus ended up relieving himself on the roof, which reportedly caused much consternation among the Romney boys. Ever since the story got out -- it was reported by the Boston Globe in 2007, during Romney's first run for president -- Romney opponents have used it in semiserious and sometimes fully serious ways to portray him as insensitive.
In late January, for example, top Obama campaign aide David Axelrod sent out a tweet that included a photo of Obama with his Portuguese water dog Bo in the back seat of the presidential limousine. "How loving owners transport their dogs," Axelrod wrote.
It wasn't a random comment. "They're obsessed with the dog thing," liberal journalist Chris Hayes said on his MSNBC program Sunday morning, referring to the Obama campaign. "And the reason is that, I have heard, in focus groups, the dog story totally tanks Mitt Romney's approval rating." ‘York: Obama team mocks, underestimates Romney,’ April 9th, 2012
Is Chris Hayes right? Was the Obama administration planning a campaign based on the perception of Romney as an animal abuser? Were they really using focus groups to make this issue a part of their campaign? Bloomberg News seemed to think so. In addition to Chris Hayes’ comments, there is this:
“The Obama campaign has been advertising its “Pet Lovers for Obama” group on select websites, and there’s a dedicated pet section for shoppers at the campaign store.
“It’s not just the dog story, it relates to other things about the man’s character or personality that allows it to resonate it so effectively,” Dallek said.
Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager, was given a “Dogs Against Romney” T-shirt -- made by a non-campaign affiliated group -- that sits on a table in her office. Chief strategist David Axelrod, in January, posted on Twitter a picture of Obama and Bo in the presidential limo with the caption, “How loving owners transport their dogs.” ‘Campaign Going to Dogs as PACs Fix on Romney Pet’s Ride,’ Julianna Goldman, April 12, 2012.
Certainly, the Obama campaign was going to use Seamus as a shameless ploy to smear Romney. However, the conservative Twitter-verse made short work of this campaign theme. With the exception of a few diehard Democratic columnists who were immediately mocked mercilessly, the “Romney’s mean to his dog” tactic has been neutered.
That Dog Story Had Legs
So, we know what happened, when it happened, and the result. But what caused this Obama campaign theme to die such a quick and painful death? There is a sociological theory called the “critical mass model.” This theory posits that given adequate saturation and penetration into a population, an idea will spread on its own without further introductions. In other words, the idea will become self-perpetuating and sustaining. In the case of the Seamus story, it wasn’t very widely known. The Obama campaign had tested it in a focus group and found it was damaging to Romney, but even though the story was five years old, most people didn’t know about it.
Axelrod and the campaign were getting leftwing blogs, PAC’s and key campaign supporters to spread it on Facebook and Twitter, but it hadn’t achieved the critical mass point where it was self-sustaining. Too few people who were too much alike knew the story. That’s why Axelrod was gearing up the machinery to get more people interested in spreading the idea.
Before it reached critical mass, Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller wrote about Obama’s account of eating dog meat in Indonesia. It was such a perfect rebuttal and so hilarious it spread quickly on Twitter and Facebook. It also reached a more diverse population than the Seamus story had. While Axelrod’s population was reporters and campaign supporters, the conservatives that picked up the “Obama Ate a Dog” idea weren’t as parochial. With broad connections to so many other walks of life, the conservative tweeters spread the message to a vast array of people who also passed on the information. The critical mass was achieved within a few hours so the very next day, the “Romney abuses dogs” meme had been overtaken by the “Obama Ate a Dog” meme.
Good, reliable liberal Democratic publications scurried to publish the conservative meme because otherwise they’d look uninformed. They also tried to rebut Obama’s tale by saying he was a child when the incidents happened but this didn’t work. The critical mass that had powered the spread of the idea was achieved so rapidly, the Obama campaign was left holding an empty doggie bag.
You may think this is just an observation of human communication and how common knowledge spreads. It is not. Since resources are scarce, including time, the conservative movement should recognize how to achieve this critical mass on spreading important ideas with the fewest resources possible. This will allow more time to counter progressive proposals as well. What we can’t do is replicate the “Battle of Seamus” again and again with each Obama lunge and parry. We must understand the process to reach critical mass effectively and consider the best method according to the issue.
The Farm Kids
Another Obama initiative died from conservative new media just this past week. For months Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has been fiendishly writing farm child labor rules that would prevent family farmers from teaching their young children how to operate farm machinery. It is a complex issue that affects family farm culture and the perpetuation of the vocation. If children aren’t immersed in farming, they will have neither the interest nor the skills needed to continue the tradition. I wrote an article on it. Several farmer organizations had websites and stories devoted to it. Sen. Jerry Moran (R) of Kansas wrote a letter condemning the new rules and it was signed by 32 US Senators. The DOL deadline for comments had come and passed. Since Congress didn’t have a way to stop it, given the Democratic majority in the Senate, it looked like these rules would end family farming as we know it.
Then came the Daily Caller article, ‘Rural kids, parents angry about Labor Dept. rule banning farm chores,’ by Patrick Richardson on April 25, 2012. The article spread quickly throughout the Internet like no other article or comments had. The conservative media picked up the story and through social networks it reached critical mass. Reporter Paul Conner explains the frenzy,
“The Daily Caller’s story about the proposed regulations quickly went viral on Wednesday, attracting hundreds of thousands of readers through Facebook, The Drudge Report and other online and social media platforms.” Like a firestorm, the story was tweeted, posted, and shared throughout conservative circles. The cable and broadcast media was forced to mention the story and it was talked about on radio news stories. It reached critical mass after just a few hours. For months, farmers and ranchers had been explaining just how bad the rules were. The Daily Caller story did it within a day. ‘Labor Dept. withdraws farm child labor rule after Daily Caller report goes viral,’ April 26, 2012.
The Tipping Point
So what was it that finally penetrated and saturated the public’s consciousness? How did it reach that vital critical mass to become self-perpetuating? Well, that’s another aspect to be considered.
When it was just people immediately affected by the rules, farmers, ranchers, and farm organizations, it didn’t penetrate deeply enough into the population. Farmers and children of farmers made the case, but it was too complex an issue for just sending out on Twitter or even Facebook. It needed explanation and a source that wasn’t too parochial, i.e. The Daily Caller. For critical mass to be reached, it must have a diverse enough audience that gets the issue. Once the situation was explained on a non-farm site with an adequate number of readers, the grandchildren of farmers, those who had worked on farms as kids, and those who loved the idea of the family farm became shocked and moved. A critical mass was achieved and the meme became self-perpetuating and saturated the marketplace of ideas.
The Obama administration didn’t stand a chance.
Once the critical mass had been achieved and it was clear the public was not going to tolerate this assault on family farm culture, Solis issued a release saying, “"The decision to withdraw this rule – including provisions to define the 'parental exemption' – was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms. To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”
The backlash must have been mighty indeed given the Obama administration gave up changing the rules as long as they are in power. They must’ve been scared to death.
The Keyboard is Mightier than the Senator
As we look at these two case studies, we can identify several elements to apply critical mass theory in the future. It must reach a large enough population, a diverse enough group of people, provide a compelling call to action, and have a method of transmittal that explains the issue. If these criteria can be replicated adequately, we can either counter or encourage certain ideas to self-perpetuate and become common knowledge. Neither issue was affected by the mainstream media, engineered by campaigns, or directed by political actors. It was all the conservative new media and social networking.
Remember, thirty-two US Senators signed a letter requesting the DOL drop the farm child labor rules and it wasn’t accomplished until a critical mass of people demanded it. Let’s keep in mind that immediately following the “Seamus v. Obama Ate a Dog” battle, the mainstream media tried to compare and contrast the two issues, without success. The integrated conservative media and social networks didn’t just go around the establishment media and the politicians. They went over their heads smashing a political narrative and defeating a terrible regulation. We have it within our ability to change this country for the better, with or without help from traditional political players. We just need to know how to do it.