When people talk about the promise of social media, they often praise tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter for their ability to connect people, to remove barriers, to let us tell our own stories unfiltered and unmediated — to show us as we are. Yet Sarah Palin’s reliance this week on technologies like these shows us an ironic truth: making each of us our own broadcaster doesn’t necessarily make us more open, accessible or responsive to the outside world.
Jonathan Capehart nailed it today when he said that Palin had “emerged from the protective cloak of Twitter and e-mails to Glenn Beck to speak directly to the American people” and answer the criticism that has come her way since this weekend’s shooting in Arizona. A social media channel as a shield from prying eyes rather than the modern incarnation of the panopticon? Not a portrayal we commonly hear of Web 2.0 (its potential to allow “oversharing” is a far more common critique), but one that can be just as accurate, particularly when we’re talking about public figures.
As much as self-publishing and online social tools let us show who we really are, they also let us act anonymously or insincerely in the public sphere. “No one knows you’re a dog” is just the start, since any dog able to manipulate a mouse could also contruct a false persona (a chance to find out what life’s like as a cat, perhaps). In the case of a public figure like Palin, Facebook and Twitter provide a chance to tell her story as she wants it told — which does not necessarily mean that the result is the REAL story.
It makes sense that a newspaper guy like Capehart would make this observation, since while part of the joy of the blogosphere and Twitter is that they make us all potential journalists, it’s the job of trained and experienced reporters to hold politicians and other public figures responsible for their words and actions (how depressingly rarely they do it in practice is a story for another day, and for many a Daily Show segment). We gain a lot when we remove the middlemen from our public discourse, since the range of ideas and opinions in the public sphere today is orders of magnitude broader than it was before the internet unleashed an unfiltered political discussion, but what we risk losing is the accountability that journalism at its finest can enforce.
Of course, once she stepped out from behind the curtain, ironically (again!) by releasing a video and promoting it on Facebook and Twitter, Palin became froth upon the waves of the ongoing conversation among journalists, bloggers and Twitterers. Her words (“blood libel,” anyone?) were dissected and compared with her past statements on other issues, and even the video’s production values became a subject of discussion. By the end of a long day of critique, her “protective cloak” was at best in tatters, and perhaps that’s the ultimate fate of most attempts for a media figure to live aggressively as a character rather than an honest person. That’s something that Abraham Lincoln knew more than a century before the internet was a gleam in DARPA’s eye.