For an example of how the online communications ground is constantly changing under candidates’ feet, check out Adam Hochberg’s excellent Poynter article on the Republican hijacking of the #attackwatch Twitter hashtag started by the Obama campaign. The background: earlier this month, the Obamans launched Attackwatch.com, a successor site to 2008’s FightTheSmears.com that crowdsources the process of identifying and countering online critics. Unlike its earlier counterpart, Attackwatch.com has a social media component, part of which is a Twitter hashtag for supporters to use.
But of course, hashtags don’t care who types them in, and conservatives quickly jumped on #attackwatch and began using it as a platform to make fun of the President. Hashtag hijacks are nothing new (liberals and conservatives do it to each other all the time), but this one was prominent enough that it attracted media attention and led to claims that Obama has lost his online mojo (something helped by the fact that Attackwatch.com’s design is harsh on the eyes and on the campaign’s potential opponents — not exactly happy-friendly-hopey Obama ’08).
All is lost! Which is bunk, of course, and the source of the “this election’s not going to be won in hashtags” line above. It’s one of several quotes from a discussion Hochberg and I had last week that appear in his article, and please note that of course I’m not arguing that Twitter’s going to be irrelevant in the 2012 election.
But let’s have a sense of proportion: a hashtag here and there is trivial compared with the grand sweep of presidential politics. Twitter’s a powerful tool to spread messaging and influence the opinion leaders, but it’s not the end-all of online politics — it’s just one weapon in the political arsenal. Now, if Obama’s email fundraising and mobilization go to hell, his video strategy backfires, MyBO crashes, his Facebook followers un-friend him in droves and no one clicks on his Google Ads, let’s talk.
I hope the campaign learned a few lessons about social media from this episode, though — blogs, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook had already diluted politicians’ ability to impose a political narrative in 2008, and Twitter’s main effect is to speed up the trend (it excels at spreading a meme in a flash). Message control is dead — and hashtags were born to be hijacked.