Before I can post any essay at my Presidential Power site, it needs to pass through a rigorous vetting by a host of people on my blogging team. This includes fact-checking by my team of research assistants, and a legal review by my lawyers looking for potential libel issues. I have a technical staff that helps with uploading charts, tables and YouTube videos. I usually run it by my kids to be sure I don’t embarrass them with any awkward references to their upbringing. My diversity coach needs to weigh in as well to be sure I include some reference to historically marginalized groups. Then Miss Grundy, my 5th grade high school English teacher, will give it a close read to ferret out any split infinitives, misplaced prepositions and the like. I then send the draft to my high school gym teacher, in an effort to show him I’m really not “a worthless and weak pencil-necked geek”. As a last check for relevance to popular culture, I’ll pick a random person at the checkout line of the local grocery store to give it a read. Finally, I send it to Mom via traditional mail because, well, she’s my Mom and I know she’ll call me to say “it’s wonderful!” In short, only after 23 people have reviewed my draft post do I feel comfortable uploading it. Sure, it’s a tedious process, but it’s necessary given the size of my readership and the potential damage that one inadvertent phrase in my post can have on world affairs.
Sound ridiculous? Of course – but only slightly more so than what recent media reports have led us to believe regarding the process the Romney presidential campaign purportedly put in place before it allowed any tweet to go out during the 2012 presidential race. According to the former Romney “digital integration director” Caitlin Checkett, as quoted in this published academic paper by communications scholar Daniel Kreiss, “So whether it was a tweet, Facebook post, blog post, photo—anything you could imagine—it had to be sent around to everyone for approval. Towards the end of the campaign that was 22 individuals who had to approve it. … The digital team unfortunately did not have the opportunity to think of things on their own and post them. … The downfall of that of course is as fast as we are moving it can take a little bit of time to get that approval to happen.”
The first reference I saw to this story was two days ago in this tweet by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan who simply posted that quote and linked to the actual article. Within hours references to the 22-person twitter claim had popped up, by my count, in more than two dozen media outlets, ranging from the Washington Post to MSNBC to the HuffingtonPost and USA Today. In addition, several of my students forwarded links to the story to me. As far as I can tell, most of these outlets simply repeated the quote without bothering to check with other Romney campaign aides to see whether the process described by this aide was actually in place. As it was, Romney’s chief campaign strategist Stuart Stevens had almost immediately tweeted that the story wasn’t accurate, but this didn’t seem to make it into any of the online coverage.
Why did this story take off so fast? My guess is because it fit with a prevailing sentiment among bloggers and pundits that it was the ineffectiveness of the Romney campaign that led to his loss in 2012 despite a weak economic recovery that usually would have cost the incumbent president reelection. That narrative, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is almost certainly wrong; the notion that disparities in campaign effectiveness is what cost Romney the victory is simply not supported by any evidence that I’ve seen. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck make a similar argument in their book The Gamble when in reviewing the available evidence regarding campaign effectiveness, particularly during the summer of 2012, they conclude, “The reason that the polls were so stable is that the Obama and Romney campaigns were fairly evenly matched.”
Indeed, the real irony here is that if the pundits citing the 22-person reference had actually read Kreiss’ article, they would have found that he paints a more favorable picture of the Romney digital team than this one heavily tweeted quote suggests. Kreiss notes, for instance, how well prepared Romney’s digital team was to capitalize on social media during and after Romney’s strong performance in the first presidential debate. More generally, Kreiss’ account shows a Romney digital staff that seemed in some respects quite nimble in adapting to the twitter-driven coverage that grew so prevalent during the 2012 campaign. (Kreiss’ paper is well worth reading for its description of how both campaigns sought to win the recurring “two-hour” cycle of social media coverage.)
It is evident that many pundits, reacting to the pressure of publishing in the compressed media cycle that characterizes the digital age, did not bother to read the Kreiss article closely and instead simply relayed the initial twitter excerpt that fit with the prevailing conventional wisdom regarding how the data-driven, digital-savvy Obama campaign ran circles around poor Mitt’s antiquated analog-based outfit. Moreover, few of them seemed to bother to reach out, via a simple email (as I did) to members of the Romney campaign team to verify the story. If they had they might have come to different conclusions, or at least presented another side to the story. (To be fair, some of the news outlets did seem to make an effort to scan Kreiss’ paper, although not many seemed to bother to confirm the 22-person tweet claim.)
Not only did many pundits not engage in basic fact-checking – some went on to use the 22-person twitter narrative to draw additional conclusions about how a President Romney might have conducted his presidency. In a line of reasoning that was repeated in various forms by other news outlets, the Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote, “Still, having 17 to 22 people vet each tweet seems like a bit of an overcorrection, and makes one wonder what Romney’s management style would have been like in the White House.” I’ve done extensive research on how presidents manage the White House, and it’s not clear to me that one can say much about a president’s organizational effectiveness based on how his campaign ran social media. As evidence, one need look no further than Obama’s presidency. After extolling the digital savvy that apparently characterized Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, pundits are now giving him poor reviews as a White House manager. Evidently Obama’s campaign effectiveness did not translate very well into running the presidency!
Let me be clear. I don’t know how the Romney team ran its digital social media campaign, although I confess that I am skeptical that 22 people had to sign off on each tweet, Facebook post or blog. However, the real lesson from Kreiss’ paper, it seems to me, is how both campaigns sought to use social media to influence how journalists covered the presidential race. Too often, it appears, journalists used dubious metrics, such as tweets, as a barometer for how the campaigns were doing among the general public. In so doing they left themselves open to manipulation by both campaigns’ digital outreach efforts. Judging by the overreaction in the online punditocracy to tweets about the Kreiss article, many media pundits have yet to learn this basic lesson.