Despite being outnumbered in a conservative Congress, Obama is sticking to his party line. The president delivered what he called a State of the Union address focused on core values, rather than a list of political objectives. The Obama administration’s messaging strategy has always been about large-sweeping value statements. Campaign slogans such as “Change We Need,” and Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” posters are the earliest examples of the campaign team’s use of ethos to gather public support. In a modern environment saturated by images and taglines, this strategy has clearly served the president well. Last night’s State of the Union address (#sotu) was no exception. While the #sotu was not a list of political objectives, it most certainly was a sorting of government initiatives into hashtags.
Obama’s talking points were all expected, and the evening’s address did not come with many surprises. The president touched on a wide spectrum of topics—including terrorism, child care, equal pay, climate change, access to education, the Affordable Care Act, family planning and the growth of the middle class— within the short confines of his address. Most of these large and politically nuanced topics came with their own hashtags, creating the conditions for what in 21st century government has become a political paradox.
On one hand, categorizing political issues into accessible tags is a useful and modern technological evolution of the way community members can interact with their government. The use of hashtags throughout the address shows that Obama’s staff is continuing to utilize branding and marketing tools to reach and gauge the input of a wide audience. However, while technologically driven interconnection has created ease of access, it certainly does not create the conditions for quality of content.
Contrary to what has become mainstream belief, this is NOT because the masses are stupid, or the public is too polarized to contribute to politics in a meaningful way. The reality is that our current systems for communicating online are not conducive to critical or nuanced thinking.
One hundred and forty characters and an emoticon or two are far from enough to express the complexity of issues that have the potential to change our government’s operating conditions. By attaching hashtags to a largely-viewed political event like the State of the Union, the best we can hope for is a tug-of-war match between extremes. The whole process runs the risk of creating an environment in which we are attempting to figure out how to improve our government based on the aggregate of the endurance of loudest voices in the room.
Sound political reform cannot be achieved through a shouting match of attrition; it requires divergent thinking that is frequently inaccessible in today’s technological pool of brevity and immediate gratification. The use of social media in governance is still in its infancy; until these systems of communication can begin to transmit human needs, emotion and intelligence more effectively and deeply, take the #hashtags and any report of their meaning with a healthy dose of skepticism.