The Internet of Political Things

The digital world undeniably has swamped the political world, resulting in what you might call the internet of political things – email hacks, Twitter feed, Facebook fundraising and unfiltered outreach to a political base.

The digital world undeniably has swamped the political world, resulting in what you might call the internet of political things – email hacks, Twitter feed, Facebook fundraising and unfiltered outreach to a political base.

Private email servers. Unsecured personal smartphones. Cyber-hacking. Online campaign fundraising. Streaming townhall meetings. Fake Twitter accounts. Fake Facebook accounts. No denying the digital world has swamped the political world and we now have an internet of political things.

That fact resurfaced this week with news reports President Trump persists in using his personal smartphone, despite US intelligence warnings that Russians and Chinese are listening in on his conversations. Trump has denied the report, but also has confirmed it.

The crack in confidential, sensitive information by Trump is ironic in light of his continuing attacks on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the chants of crowds at his political rallies of “Lock her up!”

For Trump, the digital world is his oyster. His Twitter account, he says, is his “megaphone” to speak, unfiltered, to his political base. Trump has more than 100 million Twitter followers. Newsweek points out as many as 15 million of his followers may be fake. Trump complained Twitter is trying to suppress the number of people following him. His complaint came in a tweet.

Barack Obama perfected the art of social media engagement and fundraising in his presidential campaigns. Now social media is a standard, integral part of campaigns for the presidency all the way down to local school board races. One of the top positions in big-time campaigns is digital director. Social media is a perfect vehicle to mobilize supporters, recruit new followers and disseminate a campaign’s key talking points. Social media also is a platform that can be used to test messages to see how they play with the political base.

Campaign budgets tell the story. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, major campaigns spent between 10 and 20 percent of the budget on digital. The Trump campaign spent 50 percent of its budget on digital. Big data, which can pinpoint people’s behavioral tendencies, has largely replaced paper voter registration lists that connect a Democrat or a Republican to a house address.

Based on US intelligence accounts, hacking into emails, setting up fake social media accounts, spinning conspiracy theories and conducting cyber dirty tricks are now common campaign practices. We have been led to believe Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have launched digital attacks aimed at US political figures, political parties and news media. There is less revealed knowledge about whether the United States engages in similar digital disruption in foreign countries.

Members of Congress who are stuck in Washington, DC – or want to avoid live appearances – have taken to virtual townhalls, often using live streaming as the medium.

Political polarization has lapped over to “news,” resulting in clusters of online outlets that cater to the views of people on the far opposite sides of the political spectrum. Some pose as news media even though they are principally political provocateurs. They would stick out on a TV channel guide, but they blend in as part of the vaster, unregulated cybersphere. 

Whereas people in the past conversed about political events of the day over coffee, they now engage in more highly caffeinated social media exchanges, sharing articles and trading insults in real time. You don’t have to wait for a daily newspaper to read your favorite (or most hated) commentator and offer your own follow-up comments. You can troll friends and foes alike online. You can associate with your political tribe and saber-rattle at your opposing political tribe. You can get – and give – political feedback on your smartphone virtually anywhere, anytime.

Like the internet of things, the internet of political things has created greater connectivity. In your home, you can remotely control your temperature and monitor your doorstep. In your political home, you can dial up whatever temperature you want and kick anyone to the gutter.

The internet of things can do a lot of good. You can monitor elderly parents living at home, reduce your energy bill and work without commuting. The internet of political things does good, too. You have more direct access to what political figures say and think. You have a wider range of political commentary at your fingertips. You can engage in political movements without leaving your own house.

For better or worse, the internet of political things is a reality. It is likely to become even more prevalent, though probably not to the point where you engage your refrigerator in a political debate. In Italy and other places, the internet of political things has evolved to electing representatives and giving them legislative direction via online direct democracy. That’s like inviting the legislative process for a sleepover on your computer. 

The good news is digital change occurs fast. You won’t have to wait long for the next big internet of political things.

The Difference a Day Can Make - Or Not.

Anyone can have a bad hair day. President Trump had a hair-on-fire day this week with two former associates headed to prison, an early congressional supporter indicted, the White House counsel talking to the special prosecutor and Facebook removing another trove of Russian fake accounts. [Photo Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg]

Anyone can have a bad hair day. President Trump had a hair-on-fire day this week with two former associates headed to prison, an early congressional supporter indicted, the White House counsel talking to the special prosecutor and Facebook removing another trove of Russian fake accounts. [Photo Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg]

Anyone can have a bad hair day. President Trump had a hair-on-fire day yesterday. His former campaign manager was convicted on bank and tax fraud charges, his personal attorney-fixer plead guilty to fraud and one of his first GOP congressional supporters was indicted for misuse of campaign funds.

Facebook announced it removed 652 fake accounts peddling misinformation that it said originated with Russian and Iranian sources. The New York Times reported White House counsel Donald McGahn has met in three interviews lasting 30 hours with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigative team.

Most people would chalk that up as a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” However, Trump spent last evening performing at another of his free-wheeling campaign rallies, inciting his West Virginia audience to chant “Lock her up!” – an ironic anthem on the day two of his associates started on the road to prison.

Trump’s spokesperson downplayed the Manafort conviction – “nothing to do with the President” – and Cohen’s plea – “he said what he did as part of a plea deal.” Democrats unleashed attacks about corruption in the Trump camp and began referring to the President as an “unindicted co-conspirator.”

Despite all the buzz, it remains doubtful anything will change. Mueller’s special investigation into Russian meddling will continue. Chances of Congress starting an impeachment process are close to nil. And Trump supporters seem unfazed.

The 47-page indictment of GOP Congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife for improperly using campaign funds could put his bid for re-election in his San Diego congressional district in jeopardy. In the wake of the indictment, House Speaker Paul Ryan stripped Hunter of his committee assignments, but Hunter still may win re-election in what a local San Diego newspaper calls a “very red district.”

Some Senate Democrats canceled meetings with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanugh, saying it is inappropriate to move forward on a confirmation process for someone nominated by Trump after he was implicated by Cohen in a federal elections law conspiracy. However, the confirmation hearings are slated to begin in early September and it appears Senate Republicans are congealing to support Kavanaugh, along with two or three Senate Democrats up for re-election in red states.

The Manafort conviction, Cohen plea and Facebook action on fake Russian accounts are unlikely to sway Trump supporters, though they may steel the resolve of Democrats to get out their vote to retake control of the House. Even that prospect is in doubt. Polling indicates as many as 74 House seats held by Republicans could be in play in the midterm election in November, but that number is likely to drop substantially as campaigns pick up steam in the fall.

Trump’s legal team, which appears to have convinced the President to avoid an interview with Mueller’s investigators, keeps egging the special prosecutor to wrap up his investigation before the November election. Trump’s lawyers believe – or hope – nothing will stick to the President in the final report. But even if the report points to obstruction of justice and some level of conspiracy with Russians on election meddling, there is no guarantee Trump’s supporters or even Republicans in general will be swayed. The same partisan divide will remain, with even deeper trenches.

At the end of the day, the hair-on-fire day for Trump may be just another comet news cycle that glows, then fades, replaced by new political brush fires.


Yet Another Unbelievable, Wacky Week in Washington, DC

As weeks go in Washington, DC, this has to be one of the wackiest as President Trump plots an attack on Syria, Facebook is accused of being a monopoly and former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir says the White House is run like a forest fire. And that doesn’t include the retirement announcement of House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner’s decision to advocate for legal medical marijuana.

As weeks go in Washington, DC, this has to be one of the wackiest as President Trump plots an attack on Syria, Facebook is accused of being a monopoly and former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir says the White House is run like a forest fire. And that doesn’t include the retirement announcement of House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner’s decision to advocate for legal medical marijuana.

You can’t say nothing is happening in the nation’s capital. You just can’t believe what’s happening.

President Trump is preparing to respond to a poison gas attack of civilians in Syria, signaled a reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and had a tweet tirade over a raid of the home and office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Trump said the raid was “disgraceful.” Cohen’s attorneys said it was “unnecessary and inappropriate.” Cohen said the agents who carried out the raid were “polite and respectful.” Media reports suggested the purpose of the raid may have been to seize recordings Cohen made of his conversations, including with Trump.

GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he is retiring at the end of his term, fueling speculation of an impending GOP shellacking in the mid-term elections this fall. Meanwhile, Ryan’s Republican predecessor, John Boehner, announced his views on cannabis have “evolved” and he will advocate for legalization of medical marijuana.

Former FBI Director James Comey’s tell-all memoir is leaked that delivers scathing criticism of Trump as “unethical and untethered to the truth” and more like a mob boss than the leader of the free world. Trump responded on Twitter by calling Comey an “untruthful slime ball” and a “leaker” of classified information. Somewhere in the West Wing, former strategic advisor Steve Bannon was trying to convince Trump aides to go gonzo.

Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo underwent confirmation hearings where some of the most heated questions centered on what he says to Trump in their private conversations. Meanwhile, the Senate moved forward the nomination of a former coal industry lobbyist as the top deputy at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Senate and House committees, including the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, grilled Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg about failures to protect user privacy. Questioning zeroed in on whether Facebook is a monopoly and should be regulated.

The Congressional Budget Office issued an updated analysis of the GOP tax cut indicating it will result in a $1.9 trillion deficit and 80 percent of the benefit will accrue to foreigners, which complicates Republican campaign plans to tout the tax cut as a major achievement. Retiring Tennessee Senator Bob Corker told reporters voting for the GOP-backed tax cut may have been his biggest blunder in office. Trump dismissed the CBO findings.

Despite promising a swift response with “new, smart missiles,” Trump and his national security team were still debating how and when to respond to Syria’s renewed used of chemical weapons in light of Russia’s threat to defend Syrian military installations if attacked by US missiles or armed forces.

Trump’s tariff talk, which rattled stock markets, angered farmers and drew reciprocal tariffs, cooled off after Chinese President Xi Jinping gave what observers viewed as a conciliatory speech on trade relationships and included a reference to protection of intellectual property of foreign companies. Despite tough talk on the campaign trail and quick action when in office to dump US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump suddenly recognized the continued efforts of the other 11 Pacific Rim partners to write fair trade rules as a possible source of leverage on China.

Trump chose to stay in Washington, DC instead of attending a Latin American summit focusing on trade, including apparently stalled talks on revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Vice President Mike Pence, who is filling in for Trump, is expected to hear pushback from Latin American leaders about Trump’s comments and actions toward Latino immigrants. Aides to Pence said his individual meetings with leaders are intended to “soften the edges” of US foreign policy and immigration views.

The week provided a lot for Trump to fume about, prompting stories about the President’s renewed consideration of firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Previous musings about such firings have been dismissed by the White House, Trump’s lawyers and Republican leaders on the Hill. However, this week Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley sought expedited consideration of bipartisan legislation to insulate the Mueller investigation from any adverse action by Trump.

Toward the end of the week, Trump pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, who was convicted in 2007 of perjury and obstruction of justice involving the leak of a CIA officer’s identity. Libby’s sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush, but not pardoned. The timing of Trump’s pardon seemed like a signal that he would protect those who protect him.

The beehive in Washington, DC this week didn’t include any mention of or tweets about North Korea. The leaders of North and South Korea are scheduled to meet April 27 and a face-to-face meeting between Kim Jong-un and Trump is anticipated in either May or June.


Hashtag Warfare

If politics is war, then Twitter is the neutron bomb. Politicians are engaging in hashtag warfare to stake out positions and target opponents without ever talking to a reporter or entering a TV studio.

You know you have a powerful weapon, says The Washington Post, when the President of the United States incorporates hashtags into his speeches, as he did last week — #dontdoublemyrate — in pressuring the GOP-led House to block an increase in student loan interest rates. After whipping up a student crowd in Chapel Hill that chanted the hashtag, there were almost instantaneously 20,000 tweets with the hashtag. 

Within 45 minutes, House Speaker John Boehner responded, using the hashtag, blaming Democrats for the student loan rate increase. Conservative groups seized on the hashtag to rip Obama over gas prices and lingering high unemployment rates, a risk you run in hashtag warfare.

Ann Romney chose Twitter to respond to criticism about her being a stay-at-home mom. Her tweet — "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." — reframed the conversation in thousands of retweets. Critics changed the subject.

Twitter-bombing isn't just an American political phenomenon. It played a huge role in the Arab Spring upheavals. Reportedly the new president of Chile instructed his cabinet ministers to tweet to build grassroots support for his new policies.

Facebook has tons more users, but Twitter has become the go-to place to find out the latest news. That is just the kind of battlefront that attracts political operatives. Shots fired on Twitter wind up ricocheting on Facebook and, ultimately, populate searches on Google.

Half-time with Chrysler

A 120-second ad aired at half-time of Sunday's Super Bowl featuring Clint Eastwood talking about Detroit's comeback sparked a sharp debate among political partisans. Was it a covert pro-Obama re-election ad? Was it part of the payback for massive bailouts that kept Chrysler afloat? It depends on who you talk to, and plenty of people were talking.

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said the ad had zero political content.

Eastwood, who described himself as leaning more toward libertarian fiscal views and has been quoted by the Los Angeles Times as opposed to the auto bailout, said the ad was about job creation. 

GOP high priest Karl Rove told Fox News the ad offended him and smacked of Chicago-style politics. 

Obama campaign staffers in Michigan called it "another great Chrysler ad," while the President's political advisor David Axelrod extolled it as a "powerful spot."

And then there are all the tweets and Facebook mentions arguing one side or the other. Thousands of them, which continued on into this week.

Most of the commentary seemed to bypass the policy choice behind all the brouhaha. Commentators and tweeters apparently left that for actual politicians to duke out. Obama touts the bailouts, which actually started under President George W. Bush, as the savior of the U.S. auto industry. Or as one wag summed up Obama's re-election pitch, "Osama bin laden is dead, but GM is alive." Republican presidential hopefuls pan the bailout, calling it an unfortunate intrusion by government into the free market.

Congressional Republicans Out-tweet Democrats

More Congressional Republicans are on Facebook than Democrats and GOP lawmakers tweet more often than their counterparts across the political aisle.

According to a survey conducted by the Associated Press, 86 percent of House Republicans tweet compared to just 75 percent of Democrats. Forty-one of the 47 Senate Republicans and 41 of the 51 Senate Democrats tweet. Eight of 10 members in both the House and Senate use Facebook and Twitter.

Not surprisingly, congressional tweeting has its skeptics. Some social media experts say lawmakers miss the point of this interactive space by trying to push messages instead of engaging with people, especially millennials — young adults between 18 and 29 whom AP says "practically live online."The Pew Internet and American Life Project says one third of Americans in the millennial age group seek to connect with their governmental officials online.

"I want it to be something that's going to be valid to me as an 18-year-old, as a new voter," says Emily Bartone, a student at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. "They can talk and talk and talk about whatever their agenda is, but if they don't personalize it to their views and their audience, then they're not going to get anywhere with it."

Heather Smith of Rock the Vote tells AP, "Have a real conversation. Talk about the issues and engage them in authentic ways. Be yourself, use the technology and people will write back."

The shadow of former Congressman Andrew Wiener getting way too personal in his tweets still looms over the Capitol, but federal lawmakers seem to be opening up to the possibilities afforded online. Some are holding online townhall meetings. The House Republican caucus held an online group townhall called "America Speaking Out."