James Katz

A Social Media President?

Air Date: December 20, 2014

James Katz assesses President Obama's use of new technology.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Mastery of social media was a critical ingredient in President Obama’s election and re-election, turning online data into an exact and winning electoral science.

Today’s guest knows the inner workings of this contemporary campaign narrative. For James Katz has closely monitored Obama’s electronic get-out-the-vote efforts in the wide range of online interactions between campaigns of office holders and the voters.

Boston University Feld Professor of Emerging Media, Katz has studied for decades the rise, evolution and social consequences of new media. He is the author of The Social Media President, a fascinating examination of the politics and policy behind President Obama’s digital engagement.

White House initiatives like the White House Online Town Halls and the Citizen’s Briefing Book were promoted to give Americans unprecedented input into governmental decision making, Katz writes, but he concludes that they fail to stimulate meaningful citizen participation in policy making. So, as we near the midpoint of President Obama’s second term, I want to ask Professor Katz if this has changed. And if President Barack Obama has proven not merely to be a social media President, but the first ever pro-social media President.

KATZ: Well, thank you … I’m delighted to be here, Alexander. It seems to me that if anything the promises of getting people involved in helping set national policy have faded over time. Partly because of the complexity.

You know you can talk about something like this in prospect and think “Wouldn’t it be great if people could just come together, share ideas, interact and come up with great solutions that nobody’s thought of before. And since they did it together, democratically, we would be able to solve many of our problems.”

In point of fact, human nature and inter-personal communication doesn’t tend to work this way. First of all a lot of people don’t care to get involved and so their opinions are not registered and one of the surprising and sometimes unfortunate aspects about communication is that rather than opening doors to mutual understanding, people discover points where they disagree and become ever more acrimonious in trying to force the other person to agree with them using communication. And the communication process therefore becomes a bit more polarized and now with social media where you have to … in the case of Twitter, make a very compressed and forceful statement … people tend to exaggerate, tend to hurt other people’s feelings, tend to use that as a way to get over on the other side.

And so, as a consequence then, it gets to be very messy to try and use these wonderful tools of social media to set national policy.

And I think a lot of people are disappointed. I’m a little disappointed and yet I think when we step back and think about the liabilities of trying to use these things, it’s probably just as well that, that we’re not using Twitter to set national policy. Or at least we shouldn’t be.

HEFFNER: (Laugh) Well, I want to ask you … President Obama obviously proved himself to be a campaigner-in-chief on the web …

KATZ: Yes.

HEFFNER: … even a fund-raiser-in chief. But as Commander-in-Chief, what have been your aspirations for his utilization of social media and have they met your, your hopes?

KATZ: Well, I tend to be a little agnostic … in other words, it’s not really what my standard is for his achievements in social media, but rather what are the standards that he set for himself? And what are standards that those who worked for him believed he had set for himself and for his Administration.

And I think on the one hand you can say well no President has sought public input to the extent that President Obama has done.

But we can bracket that by saying “No, George Washington did not have Facebook to gather opinions” and Abraham Lincoln did not have the telephone to gather opinions, so it’s understandable that as each new wave of communication technology comes along, that those in power would seek to use those tools for, for governance. And I’ll come back in a minute to what governance might mean in this context. So, we must give him credit for that.

On the other hand, as recently as July 8, 2013 … that is … not too long after he was re-elected, he re-committed himself to using social media as a way to guide national policy. So we have this information and these viewpoints on the one side. On the other side we have “What have been the actual steps that have been undertaken by the Administration”.

And these include early steps such as the Citizens’ Briefing Book where large numbers of people submitted their ideas about what the government should do. That includes Town Halls where … electronic Town Halls, I should say, where people could submit ideas and others would vote on them. But these, these sorts of open forums have died away and instead what we have are very restricted formats where there will be a Moderator who selects questions for the President or the top officials answer when they appear on, say, Google Plus or other Google hang outs and electronic forums of that nature.

So over time there’s been less and less opportunities for people to actually set national policy even as there are more and more opportunities such as the petitioning of the White House to tell the White House what you would like to have happen, but on that said, there’s no commitment that the White House or President Obama will respond to any of these entreaties or any of these issues that come up through social media.

So finally then some of his early enthusiastic supporters are disappointed because of the lack of democratic and social media processes as adjuncts to setting national policy.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s take a 2014 case in point … healthcare dot gov … expound for a moment Secretary Sebelius, who recently resigned was active on Google hangouts and other social media forms in her interactions with young people and other people who would be subscribing and rolling into the exchange programs. How did you analyze in real time this process?

KATZ: Well, what I would say is that the people who get to raise these questions in these forums are selected and the backdrop of the … in this case Secretary Sebelius behind her, when they take the pictures are all enthusiastic supports. So, in other words, you have a situation where the potential for embarrassment is minimized and the opportunity to appear socially engaged via these exciting new media is maximized.

HEFFNER: So, what was the ultimate take away from the experience of healthcare dot gov … it … apparently now is up, running, people have enrolled and will be receiving health care. But in the future, what guidelines do you suggest beyond social media, just in the transaction, the online transaction that occurs, what guidelines would you suggest the Administration use in the future?

KATZ: Well, the healthcare dot gov is, is interesting in that that’s using technology for getting people to sign up and so, if you put that on the one side, then you look at the other side which is using social media to encourage people to use the website … so even though these are both technologies of communication, these are both relatively new social media oriented activities … they’re, they’re … the website represents governance through an operation and the attempt to get people to sign up for the health care act requirements is using social media to influence people. So …

HEFFNER: You sounded skeptical at the beginning that 140 characters could permit a substantive or effective government regime or policy. How many Tweets would you forecast could perpetuate an honest, forward thinking government policy?

KATZ: The … I, I have to say at the, the end of the day after analyzing all the information we were able to collect … I and my co-authors were able to collect during the research … we just don’t think that’s a good way (laugh) to run a government. And there was a lot of wisdom in those who framed the Constitution to have checks and balances and have a deliberation over, over policy.

And, indeed, if you think about the original Constitution … there was a lot of … Senators were not directly elected, for example. So there was a lot of insulation from the passions of the people to, to make government.

And, you know, Plato going back more than 2,400 years was worried about the passions of the people running things. And while those who feel that they’re at the crest of the social wave and would like to see their viewpoints implemented throughout society, may want more progressive actions from people … more engagement from the, the groundswell of human sentiment up.

On the other hand in other stages, for example at the outbreak of World War I our social liberties … I’m sorry, our political liberties were trampled on and likewise at the outbreak of World War II. So we have to be very careful about how much we want public opinion governing our country.

HEFFNER: So, so let’s interrogate that point for a moment. What is a reasonable amount of crowd sourcing and tell us what “crowd sourcing” is.

KATZ: Well “crowd sourcing” is the thesis that you can get a lot of valuable information from people who might know something about it, but are not part of your, your inner circle. And therefore by firing out a question to a crowd of people, the crowd can either give you the best answer or they can argue among themselves, then provide you with the best answer.

So, what is the best role … I think the idea of having periodic national elections (laugh) as much as we do is a really good, good way to do it. The, the problem is when political leaders say they want public opinion to guide them … what they tend to actually mean is they want the public to agree with them in implementing what they, themselves, wish to do.

And when the public sentiment disagrees with them, then the leaders either ignore that input or they say, “I need to have a conversation with the public to persuade them …” or “I didn’t get my message explained to them clearly enough … so that they continue to disagree with me”.

And I think what it requires at the end of the day is leadership, not social media crowdsourcing. So I really don’t think, for example, we want ordinary people making decisions about endangered species, for example. We don’t want the passions of the moment to decide what our civil liberties are going to be. I think it’s important we have experts, we have checks and balances, we have opportunities to reflect on things and that, that change tends … should be in many cases … slow.

And that’s not something that people like to hear, especially now when we emphasize on instant service … you want your food quickly from the fast food place, you want your, your excellent connectivity with your Internet provider. You want … you don’t want to have to have long delays at airports where … and of course, these are all reasonable things … waiting in and of itself tends not to be a good thing.

On the other hand, what seems to be a really good idea … Time One … sometimes turns out to be a really bad idea at Time Two.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re a man of, of many gadgets and certainly very knowledgeable about media literacy. What would democracy on our smart phones look like? I mean to the extent that we’re engaging in this transformation … and that we want people to be apprised of the developments in the news and important facets of our democracy … how can we integrate it into an application or an “app”, as we say today …

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … that is on a Blackberry, iPhone or another device?

KATZ: MmmHmm. Well, I’ll answer that in a moment, but let me just tell you one of my favorite examples of not listening to the crowd about what we should be doing. And that is, if you think about France, the country … and you think what’s the, what’s the embodiment, what’s the symbol of France? Well, of course, most people would say, “the Eiffel Tower”. But when that was being built, the public opinion and expert opinion was overwhelmingly negative and they wanted to stop, just at three stories and not go any further. And yet, over time, “Monsieur Eiffel” was proven to be a very good thinker. So we don’t want our plays, we don’t want our television shows, we don’t want our politicians guided moment by moment by the passions or the instincts of, of the crowd.

And further, what are … what is the great strength of a democracy? Well, one of the great strengths, certainly, is that people have competing demands on their loyalty, on their time, on their affection. And if all you have is politics … 24 by 7 … that drives out many other aspects of life. Family. Volunteer service. Religion. Artistic endeavors. Instead, all you have is politics. So, what would an “app” look like … I have to answer the question in a rather circumscribed way.

It would, it would look like a, a mashup of many different opinions, a little bit … for example … in the stock market … where all they have Twitter sentiments and the show about different companies … what the sentiments are on Twitter.

And you would have a similar thing about sentiments on various issues. And that could be a valuable guide to what the pulse or the temperature is of public opinion. And then you could have a little … part of the “app” would be to use artificial intelligence to predict what your tastes would be. Do you want to protect the spotted owl, do you want to have carbon tax, do you want immigration reform … and it would sign petitions, it would write little scripts about your opinions and your, your voice therefore could be heard much more loudly through all these different aspects of, of government.

Now that said about the “app” … there will be counter “apps” just as when the telephone was invented, the Senatorial offices learned how to get rid of unwanted phone calls. When the fax was invented and became popular, how to get rid of the unwanted faxes. And likewise with all these new opinion aggregation devices and petitioning and so forth, politicians will come up with new devices to insulate themselves so that they can preserve their freedom of action and pursue the policies they inherently wish to follow.

HEFFNER: If you look at public opinion polling you’ll see that Americans by and large are underwhelmed with the government that they have. So would creating this “app” be a way to re-enforce the fact that government can be “hip”, innovative and, and novel in the way that it’s approaching doing the people’s business.

In other words, an extension of this “app”, could it not include registering to vote, and digital balloting, eventually?

KATZ: Sure. Those … I think they’re … you’re right. There should be some citizenship “app” that would tell you about the Division of Motor Vehicles, how long the line is there … and register your happiness or dissatisfaction with that. Likewise with your trash collection service. And voting, when to register to vote, where … when the polls are open, what the nearest poll is and of course, as you foresee, to be able to vote on your mobile phone, so you don’t even need to worry about where the nearest poll is.

So, yes, I think there’s a, a good role for all of those things … with some sort of “app”.

But that’s a little bit different than saying what our policies should be. So, for example, how many times a day would you like to be registering your opinion about such things as building bridges, the purity of our food supply. Our relationship with China, should we intervene on one side or the other of a coup in Thailand. Is … should we be having new restrictions on the export of certain biological materials, and so forth. How many hours a day would the ordinary person wish to take addressing those things. And in point of fact, not that many hours, most people would say.

Now this brings up another question which is the digital divide. So, in other words, for people who don’t want to spend their time being involved in politics … how are they going to be represented unless they have somebody who is officially their representative, as we have today versus those who’s voices are the loudest, as projected through social media.

HEFFNER: Is that great divide the most looming and largest impediment to progress?

KATZ: It has to be one of the biggest ones because a lot of people are not adept at social media. A lot of people don’t care about it. A lot of people can’t afford it. And there’s a large educational component separating those who use social media for politics or for information gathering and those who use social media just for social interaction with their friends and then there’s yet another divide of people who just are … are not part of the social media world at all. So, so that really goes against the whole notion of, of equal representation before the law and equal representation in the governmental process.

HEFFNER: We’re in the midst of the beginning of the 2014 mid-term cycle. What do you … you said before you’re not going to judge the President’s standards because they set them internally within the White House. But what are your hopes and aspirations for the candidates running in this cycle?

KATZ: Well, my hope and aspiration is that there be less negative political advertising and, and posturing. But you’ve said earlier that a lot of people have a negative view towards the government and towards politicians.

Well, part of the reason for that is, in my opinion, because of all the negative campaigning and the negative nature of politics today. But that is not very surprising that it’s so negative because research shows that negative ads and negative attacks work much better to pull down your opponent than it does if you build up yourself. So, it’s only natural that we have a lot of negative campaigning. Which has that deleterious effect on the quality of, of the … of people’s trust and confidence in governance.

But coming to look at the 2014 campaign, what we’ll see are people running primaries and allowing participants to vote via their mobile phones. We’ll see online campaigns, we’ll see lots of participation through social media like Google Hang-Outs and other Reddit forums and things like that.

So in other words, this is a whole new Wild West, as it were, that’s ready to be overtaken by politicians and their agents.

HEFFNER: You mentioned before the vicious negativity that may appear and does appear on social media. How do you prevent it? I mean can we create an “app” so that when a … one campaign is attacking another it’ll say, “Sorry, you can’t say that”.

KATZ: Yes.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t that be the ideal situation?

KATZ: That would be a very good “app” to develop and … so the question would be one person’s truth-telling is another person’s slur. And so this, this becomes an important element.

And in fact the White House did try something like this with the healthcare act and they, they asked that any fishy emails that have what the White House considered to be distorted or untrue statements about the Affordable Care Act be turned over to the White House, so that the White House could know about them and, and formulate responses.

And this, of course, alarmed a good segment of the attentive public saying “Well, now I’m going to be turned into the White House for expressing myself on, on a subject of great national interest.” So, I like your notion of an “app” that would sort of flag or squelch negative campaigning. But on the other hand negative … negativity is also an important part of campaigning … to point out the flaws and shortcomings of, of the other side. If it’s only making nice-nice we aren’t doing out jobs there either.

HEFFNER: But it strikes me that you can have negativity and still have a, an ethical standard for what you want to disseminate.

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: At Boston University you direct the study of Emerging Media … do you talk a lot about ethics with your students and how they can applied in the digital realm?

KATZ: Well, we do talk some about that …

HEFFNER: Perhaps more after this conversation?

KATZ: (Laugh) I would say, you know, one of the, one of the complex aspects about ethics is, is that they … one of the important ethical viewpoints is, is almost like a rubber yardstick. So in other words if, if you were going to betray somebody that’s okay if you’re betraying them for a really good cause. But not for, for nothing … or a low cause. So, you know that was the kind of problems that journalists faced in the Kennedy Administration when there were questions about his health, about his activities with young interns and so forth and the decision was not to give attention to that.

I think in today’s world those … that would be considered very unethical and as we see, we even have opposing research to try and dig out what somebody said when they were in first grade or kindergarten …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

KATZ: … and use that against them 40 years later.

HEFFNER: Well, James Katz, I want to ask you more about the Golden Rules of media ethics, but we’ll have to do that next time. And I hope you’ll join me again.

KATZ: Wonderful. Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about these vital issues.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Professor Katz. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of idea. Until then, keep an open mind.

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