How Twitter lets politicians route around the media

The rise of social media has had a number of disruptive effects on the traditional media industry, but one of the most powerful aspects of this “democratization of distribution” is how it allows the sources of news — everyone from celebrities to eye-witnesses at important events — to publish their thoughts and reach a large audience directly, without any help from the mainstream media. It may be a plaything for someone like News Corp. billionaire Rupert Murdoch, but it can be a very useful feature for politicians in particular, as Chrystia Freeland of Reuters noted in a recent post about the social-media habits of the Swedish foreign minister, the U.S. ambassador to Russia and the mayor of a town in Alberta.
According to Freeland, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has actually been using social media for some time, since he is an avid blogger — but he says he was skeptical about the value of Twitter because he didn’t think it was possible to say much that would be valuable or interesting in 140 characters. After he tried, however, he came to see it as a great way of connecting with citizens of Sweden and others who follow him (he has 116,000 followers), and he also uses Twitter as a way of promoting his blog posts, where he writes at greater length about the issues he is dealing with as foreign minister.
While this way of using social media is definitely valuable, I was more interested in what Freeland said about how Russian ambassador Michael McFaul uses Twitter. He is somewhat more cautious than the Swedish foreign minister — saying “The thing I feel most nervous about is blending the personal and the professional [and] I’m learning where the lines are” — but the potential benefits of his use of social media are much larger, given the nature of the traditional media in Russia. As Freeland notes:

McFaul’s moonlighting role as social-media ambassador has particular relevance in Russia, where the government controls much of the traditional media, especially television, and civil society has moved to the Internet in response… his social-media presence has given McFaul the tools to reach beyond the sometimes hostile national media and speak to any Russians who care to listen.

Twitter allows the sources of news to go direct

In that sense, Twitter provides politicians like McFaul with ways of routing around the traditional media channels and getting their message out directly — just as it allowed dissidents in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world to express themselves and be heard far and wide. Obviously, the U.S. ambassador to a country like Russia is in a different category altogether, and has to be careful of what he says on Twitter or anywhere else for fear of offending his hosts, but the directness of the medium is still transformative.
Interestingly enough, this ability to route around the traditional media also appeals to Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, Alberta. Even though Calgary is a full-fledged Western democracy just like any other major city in North America, the mayor says that he appreciates the ability to connect directly with citizens and get his own message out — rather than having to rely on newspapers or TV networks to do it for him (Nenshi’s use of social media has also been cited as one of the key factors that allowed him to win the mayoral race in the first place). As Nenshi put it:

The really interesting piece about all of this is the way it disintermediates the traditional media. I’m well on my way to having more Twitter followers than one of the Calgary newspapers has readers. It puts my interactions with the media in a new light.

Alexander Howard has written a lot about how Alec Ross, one of the architects of the Obama administration’s social-media efforts, has helped politicians make better use of tools like Twitter (Ross was also involved in asking Twitter to postpone an upgrade in 2009 because the network was considered so important to the dissent in Iran). Social media can also be a forum for politicians to humanize themselves — as Senator Hillary Clinton clearly did recently by participating in a Tumblr-based “meme” involving her called Texts From Hillary — but the real power is in how it disrupts those traditional channels.
New York Times media writer Brian Stelter noted recently that one of the things that keeps him up late at night is how social-media tools like Twitter allow the “sources to go direct,” to use a phrase coined by blogging veteran Dave Winer. He was talking about News Corp. billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s use of Twitter, which has gotten a lot of attention since he joined the network earlier this year, but the principle applies to any newsmaker — including Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who chose to break the news about the company’s $1-billion acquisition of Instagram on his Facebook blog.
Maybe the internet can’t miraculously produce another Watergate, as Washington Post writer and journalistic legend Bob Woodward argued recently (I took issue with some of his points in this post). But the fact that anyone can connect directly to an audience of interested readers — whether it’s Rupert Murdoch or Ashton Kutcher or the Russian ambassador — is a truly disruptive event, and the media landscape has arguably been altered forever as a result.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and See-ming Lee