Politicians Battle For Narrative Control On The Web

Obama, Palin, and Pigs: Narrative Matters

Get the WebProNews Newsletter:

[ Life]

There was a time, if your only source of information was the Internet, when it seemed Ron Paul was a shoe-in for the Republican nominee. Internet reality is not always true reality—then again, what’s reality matter in politics? What really matters is narrative, and in that sense, the Internet is a mirror of the brick-and-mortar world, and there are lessons in political campaigns for businesses about controlling your online story.

During the last SES, we discussed the importance of a corporate narrative—the importance of narrative in general, too, which has spanned millennia. We’ve come a long way in how we store those narratives, from stone to paper to 20th Century media, and now the Internet is where we keep them. The battle for control of the narrative is no more currently raging or in flux than with the US Presidential race. In a perfect world, even a virtual word, the truer narrative wins.

But this is not a perfect world, virtual or otherwise. Just like in the outside world, the Internet holds endless ways to look at reality and endless ways to access it. Lots of people likely start with Google. Others go to YouTube. There’s also Digg, Twitter, and Wikipedia. For every MoveOn, there’s a RightWeb, for every day there’s a night, for every witch a saint, for every liberal media a corporate media, for every pit bull. . . a pig.

The Last Word On YouTube

Today’s narrative revision comes from the McCain-Palin campaign, interpreting rival Sen. Barack Obama’s comment about putting lipstick on a pig as a direct, derogatory reference to Gov. Palin’s lipstick on a pit bull comment.

This was a narrative conservatives jumped on, and indeed on YouTube you can find in the related videos section interpretations that are, well, more of the same. It’s not so hard to find Obama’s own commentary on his commentary, or Republican Mike Huckabee’s plea that people cut Obama some slack, and that that was an old saying in politics bordering on rhetorical tradition, utilized by even Dick Cheney and yes, John McCain.

What did Obama really mean by that? Good luck in finding two people to agree on that one. We’re not answering that question here, either. We’re examining the power of the Web for message reinforcement and narrative reach. Out there in the so-called real world there seems only to be two hegemonies pushing one narrative or the other—either the liberal media is giving Obama a free ride or the corporate media isn’t posing actual issue-based challenges to Palin’s record or McCain’s numerous reversals of position.

Again, good luck in finding two people who agree on those points. YouTube isn’t much different in that respect. You’ll find the same dichotomy, the same two versions of the narrative. This is why Obama has his own channel, blasting McCain’s campaign for lying about their maverick story, and McCain has his own channel returning fire about pigs and lipstick. YouTubers themselves upload videos of McCain appearing to be very interested in Palin’s chest while soldiers provide impassioned pleas on McCain’s behalf. And somewhere outside of the dichotomy are the satirists, who aren’t cutting anybody any slack whatsoever. Ironically, it may be there you find a distorted version of the truth that is paradoxically closer.

Even that is debatable.

The point is user-generated media is chaos, but you still need to be in the ring grabbing at order. Politics is polarizing, but apolitical enterprises shouldn’t find as much back and forth. There’s always opposition and competition, so it’s important to have an aggressive presence where you can: on YouTube, on MySpace and Facebook, on Twitter, on Digg, on Donner and Blitzen. There must be an answer (your answer) findable within that chaos, but don’t expect to control it—manage, might be a better word.

Damage Control On Wikipedia

Palin’s Wikipedia page
became a raging battleground as soon the announcement came down. The initial pre-announcement narrative crafted there turned out to be a bit of a mistake; things certainly looked phony and biased until the community corrected it. The point is only damage control really works on user-generated media sites like Wikipedia. The Palin camp editing the page should have made sure it was objective and then should have been stationed there to correct inaccurate edits. That’s narrative control, not embellishment.  

Digging Out Of Digg.com

One thing’s for certain, both campaigns know the importance of citizen media and are making an effort to reach out to it. As an unfortunate result, though, just like in the outside world, truth is replaced with whose story best resonates, or which storyteller holds the most clout in a given community. On YouTube, both sides seem pretty well evenly maligned or praised. Not so much on Digg.com, where searching for any candidate’s name overwhelmingly brings back positive or neutral narratives for Obama, and negative ones for McCain and Palin.

Here’s a comparison of most Dugg headlines:

Palin’s church says Jews deserve to be victims of terrorism

Sarah Palin: Earmark Queen Of The Earmark State

Palin promotes general after he praises her on Fox News

Obama Answers Your Science Questions

Obama Responds to Palin Speech

Obama shows his wicked sense of humor on Conan O’Brien watch!

McCain Lied: His Obama-Palin Comparison Falls Short

McCain says he supports min. wage after voting no 19 times watch!

Jon Stewart Obliterates McCain’s Acceptance Speech

Yes, you might say that Digg’s a tough liberal nut to crack. But at least, like so many other places, it’s obvious where a particular community stands. From a business perspective (outside of actually buying Digg support), it would be wise to devote a staffer to Digg and sites like it, to help push up positive news, and bolster the company narrative.

Rebuilding In The Twitter Aftermath

Twitter appears to be another battleground area. The lipstick on a pig controversy was rocketed to the top of the Trending topics list, competing with that little matter in Switzerland that could have ended us all (small price to pay for awesome science, don’t ya think?). Tweets are evenly mixed in general, despite the controversy:

Rebuilding In The Twitter Aftermath


Rebuilding In The Twitter Aftermath


Rebuilding In The Twitter Aftermath


Rebuilding In The Twitter Aftermath

The narrative is off the chain, you could say, and in real time. There’s probably nothing that can be done about all the mudslinging today, but maybe, if this were some controversy regarding your company, the narrative could be reclaimed in a few days time. In the meantime, company tweeters can address concerns, and when the dust settles, they can begin to rebuild the narrative.

Searching For a Good Story

Think we’re leaving out too much about Biden? Well, unfortunately for the Democrats, he’s kind of a non-issue for a public too concerned about Obama vs. Palin right now—woops, I meant Obama vs. McCain. Now would be a good time to push Biden’s part of this story, too. One imagines his chapter’s coming eventually. The same would go for business. If a positive aspect of your narrative is being drowned out, make sure the story gets told—especially in the discussion hotspots. It’s also a perfect opportunity for a search ad campaign.

Speaking of search, this is the one area you have some control. The citizen media, the blogosphere, the communities will do their own thing, but there is opportunity to control the narrative via search. Obama back in May was hiring a Web marketer with SEO experience. It seems to have paid off for the most part. The natural search results range from neutral to positive. Images searches are kind of a tossup, depending on which version of his name you look up. Searches for [barack obama] bring back presidential-looking mugshots, save for gangsta and Superman Photoshop renditions, but searches for [barack hussein obama] tell another story, that photo-narrative characterizing a smoking, Muslim, big-eared empty suit. [barack] is casual. [obama] is a beefcake on the beach. Oh, and [john mccain] is a pirate.

Searchers, like voters, will no doubt choose the narrative they like best, but you might be right to say it’s time for some image search optimization, eh? While you’re busy trying to scrub the images in image search, it’s also a good idea to pick up some AdWords ads.

In that respect, McCain’s folks are making headway—search ads appearing next to his results want you to know where McCain’s websites are, with one very neutral Obama ad trailing at the bottom. Obama’s search page is different, directing searchers to view “Barack Obama Exposed” at a website just to the right of the Third Reich, or to MoveOn.org’s buy-our-t-shirt site, where the tishirt design couldn’t be more Communist unless it had a sickle and hammer.

Searching For a Good Story

It might be time for Obama to take the gloves off in his search campaign and take control of his own narrative. If he doesn’t, others sure will. The same can be said in business: take control of your narrative or the competition and the disgruntled sure will.



Politicians Battle For Narrative Control On The Web
Top Rated White Papers and Resources
  • http://www.divinitymetrics.com/blog/2008/09/10/presidential-online-video-metrics-summary/ Guest

     Hi Jason, I read your post today on Politics & Social Media and wanted to point this interesting analysis done using the Scope video measurement platform. Take a look at it here: http://www.divinitymetrics.com/blog/2008/09/10/presidential-online-video-metrics-summary/ Love your site and keep up the great work.

  • Guest

    The GOPers have perfected and have down to a science how to smear the Democrats and how to get away with telling lies. They are very good at it and we have the last 8 years as our reward.

  • Raia


    Palin doesn’t know the difference between a pit bull and a pig?

    Give that girl a gun and send her on a fun little hunting trip with Cheney!

  • http://www.iyazam.com/ Hillel

    Soon we will be getting emails from the candidate’s selling us viagra and God knows what…I just hope they dont discover email marketing!

  • Dolores

    Well, you can always tell the Democratic support sites and the democrats by their ignorant and pathetic remarks.  Thank God I am not a democrat.  You know, you can always look at a person and know they are democrats even before they open their mouths…they are the ones who look lost at sea!  God bless McCain and Palin and if Obama does win, watch out USA we are in for a hell of a ride and it won’t be even what you democrats are looking for. 

    • Guest

      you can always tell ignorant fundy conservatives by the things they say. usually they say one a few parroted limbaugh/hannity talking points, who lead 15-20 million sheep to slaughter. if you’re gullible enough to believe them, you’ll be one of them.


      1. liberals/democrats are not the enemy, they are your fellow countrymen. limbaugh and hannity are doing a disservice to the country by turning fellow americans against each other to the point they are enemies. limbaugh’s paid well for it…$400 million last i checked, a lying mouth piece for the corporate machine…hannity? victim of cognitive dissonance who won’t admit he’s been wrong for a decade now. he also spews lies fed by mccain and palin’s own lies: factcheck.org put out that the campaign twisted and lied about what they said and that thing about sending PIs to Alaska to dig up dirt on Palin? complete fabrication.


      2. the mccain we’re seeing isn’t the mccain of the straight talk express. he’s been pulled into the machine and the machine’s fuel is lies. the whole campaign is based on lies and yes, dressing up a pig. W drove this country off a cliff and the campaign says from one corner of its mouth that was a good thing and we should keep going down the cliff and from the other corner pretends to be about change cuz barack is about that and people seem to like that idea. don’t be insulted, don’t buy their lies


      3. the author wrote about narratives…Palin’s narrative is the biggest bunch of bs there ever was. matt damon is right, it is like a bad disney movie and we do need to know if she thinks dinosaurs were here 4000 years ago. not just that, but the hypocrisy is sickening…you think if michelle obama had a pregnant, unewed teenage daughter it wouldn’t be a big stinking issue for republicans? they’d have a field day! bristol is relevant b/c her mother opposed proper sex education and b/c she cut funding for teenage pregnancy programs. why? because of the church she belongs to. if you think jeremiah wright was a valid issue, let’s bring out palin’s radical pentacostal preacher and see what he thinks! so far this election hasn’t been about issues. it’s been about surface appearances and distracting from the truth, whcih is that the republicans have sunk us all and now we all float with our heads barely above water


      4. a vote for mccain is a vote for lies and we shouldn’t put up with it. barack might not be perfect but at least he’s running on issues and hasn’t resorted to ridiculous smear tactics and complete fabrications of truth

      • Guest

        You can tell your aren’t educated.  The way you write tells it all.  It’s the ignorant people like you that can’t tell the truth from a lie.  You write as if you have an antisocial personality.  You can do some research on that to see what it means.  But again you like people who have phrases but no concrete plan.  If you are going to do something tell me how you are going to do it and if it costs money tell me how you intend to pay for it.  Good luck!


    • Guest

      Sounds like the pot is calling the kettle black". . .you can always look at a person and know they are democrats even before they open their mouths?"  Sounds pretty ignorant to me. 

    • http://kdcinfo.com Guest

      Is this someone that voted for the current Republican in office that took 8 years to lead us to such economic and international success? Clinton bailed out his the Bush Senior deficit. I’m not holding my breath that McCain will bail out of where Bush has gotten us.

      What sucks is that if McCain wins, and all stays in hell, we’ll just hear more of the same 4 years from now. But if Obama wins and he can’t contain the damage fast enough (4 years to work out an 8 year downfall), then he’ll be marked as a failure. It’s like women in the workplace where they have to work twice as much for the same amount of credit (this from a guy’s perspective).

      And as crass and vicious as politics is in the public’s view, you don’t think Palin will be pigeon-holed if put in office? I wasn’t a Hillary supporter, but at least she couldn’t be pigeon holed if she had made it to the top of the chain.

    • Guest

      Obviously by the replies here – a lot of people are drinking the koolaid of change – any change whether it’s dem or rep would be a change – doesn’t take an atom spliter to figure that out…nothing will ever change in DC or our country – but businesses leaving it…as well a our jobs and lively hood…welcome to the NEW thrid world!!!

    • christian

      What do  you think the last 8 yrs has been for the average americans? It’s been a HELL of a ride. Terrible. Bush will go down as the worst president in history!  Signed a REPUBLICAN. Not so stupid this time around, I will now have to vote with my brains, OBAMA BIDEN!

  • http://kdcinfo.com Guest

    Obama vs. Palin. woops, I meant Obama vs. McCain…

    That’s funny! I was wondering who I would hear this from first.

  • http://www.somaluna.com Erica Alvey

    To answer the question put forth in your "Editor’s Note", I will respond as the owner of an online retail business.  I find the easiest way to answer the concerns of my customers, regardless of the source of their concerns (or questions), is to be accessible for direct answers.  Most online businesses do not provide a phone number, and rarely answer emails.

    I (and my staff) are available to answer questions by phone and email, and answer almost all inquiries.  That way, not only do customers feel heard, but I have the opportunity to address any mis-information that may be floating around on the web.

    In this way, more often than not, my company narrative is my own, or can at least be re-focused towards honest representation of what my company stands for.

  • http://www.BearlandersTradingco.com Tarl

    What it comes down to is this: humans enjoy power, control and money, the more the better! Our politics prove this.

    Who ever has the best spin will truely be the winner. Not the best candidate or best leader, but the best b.s’er. Spin…..In their (Obama/McCain) quest for the ultimate power and control, we Americans loose as we have lost with Bush. The election is not about who will serve us  Americans best. This is not meant to be negative, just honest. So we choose the pig in lipstick if we think that is who presents themselves best.

    If politicians were honest and cared about the welfare of America and the American people, we would not have this conversation.


  • http://www.BearlandersTradingco.com Tarl

    While I dont usually solicit business in this manner, I will today, in honor of America.

    Our American Indian suppliers have just made us Red,White and Blue Dream Catchers. Politically correct for either party. www.BearlandersTradingCo.com   Here is the location


    Great way to show off America’s colors. And hopefully capture American dreams.


  • Jerry

    Let’s stop the word game and get to the issues and differences between the candidates. The media and the candidates as Barack said are playing a game. Issues are more important now . Time is of the essence to make a decision in 54 days for the most important position in America. Neither male president should be wearing lipstick.

  • http://www.your-inner-voice.com your-inner-voice.com

    "Political" battles for narrative? New media, old media? New books, old books? Old school, new school? We are becoming more divided by the minute. I agree, all media are a free-for-all where truth and untruth are flung in equal measure. Anybody can easily say or write anything, but anybody is not willing to take the time out to listen and "do" what life demands of us. The truth is stranger than fiction, unlike truth, fiction has no limits.

    We need people with limits, guided by principles and a leader who stands for those principles. The question is, What principles do "we, the people" agree to be guided by? We’ve all but thrown out the Good book. The truer narrative wins. If you decide to step into the lime light, your life is subject scrutiny.

    Here is one page I would like to share with you: http://www.your-inner-voice.com/SarahPalinGovernor.html

  • Bev

    What keeps surprising me is that lipstick on a pig is such a BIG story!  The news media is as gullible as anyone when a new? word or phrase comes out of the mouth of one of our Presidential canidates.  WHY aren’t they talking about deficits, trade deficits, illegal immigration issues, climate change, gasoline prices, food prices, etc. etc.

    No matter what Palin says or is quoted as saying, she is NOT ready to take over the reigns of this great nation in the event of McCain’s untimely demise.  SHE’S JUST NOT QUALIFIED.  Why oh why are so many people falling for this???  I just don’t get it.

    Why aren’t we debating the BIG issues of our time while we can.  If McCain wins this election debate will become a debacle!   He’s not qualified either.

    There, not I feel much better and I’m voting for Obama!

    Love ‘ya,  Bev

  • Marita

    the change everyone is talking about is already happening, because we’re all already thinking, that this is not the way to find  a good leader for our great country.

    If this country will be split about 50/50 again in this election, we seriously have to question our political system the way it stands. We can’t continue having our leaders working for and representing the interests of only half the country; that’s insane.

    This campaign – and campaigning in general – has become one big soap opera and each party is writing their next "episode" trying to outdo the "episodes" of the opposite party. Whose episode is more outrageous, more clever, etc.?

    Actual substance doesn’t even matter any more; neither does integrity, intelligence, diplomacy, vision, or keeping church and state separate.

    What happened to these values that we all should be looking for in a leader?

    Let’s see: McCain: up there because this is his last shot at the presidency; Obama: got in because Dems got cold feet with Hillary; Palin: picked because she might attract women voters; Biden: make up for lack of Obama’s experience.

    Why do we demand that our future leaders subject themselves to this circus? By doing this, we’re probably automatically excluding some of the brightest minds among us.

    Don’t know about all of you guys – but hink about how much all these people coudl’ve already accomplished if they wouldv’e worked for our country this past year instead of spending their time campaigning?

    Why don’t we simply assign everyone a job:

    Let’s see: McCain: let him clean up the mess in Iraq – great! Go for it!

    Obama: Let him push renewable energy resources – wind – water – whatever’s clean and independent! – Get started!

    Palin: let her get to work to save some money; cut tax breaks to big corporations and curb government spending – yeah!

    Biden: get the economy going, create jobs here in the US – that’s how it should be – yes!

    There, and this was so simple!!

  • Guest

    It is quite obvious that McCain is a follower.  The spotlight is on Palin while McCain sits in the background.  It’s like she is running for the presidency and he is her running mate.  I for certain do not want a follower as the leader of this country.  We need someone with fresh ideas who knows how to lead, not somebody who follows behind their subordinates.  Everyone who backs the republican party is looking up to Palin instead of McCain, while on the democratic side everything is kept in it’s right perspective; everyone is looking up to Obama.

    • Guest

      Where in the world did you get that McCain was a follower?  Obama can’t follow or lead.  Over 130 times in his state legislature he voted present rather than a yes or no.  Do you call this leadership?  If you do you need to sue every teacher you have had in your lifetime.  By the way I am not a Democrat nor Republican.  What fresh ideas does Obama have?  He can’t even give a simple answer to a question.  People of his own race sees that and has denounced him on national TV.  How about dem apples?  Are they red delicious or cooking apples?  Good luck with your wrapped mind.


  • http://officialsafetyandsecurity.com Debbie Morgan

    Is this article about narrative control or politics? The title says it’s about narrative control but the comments are political in nature.

    So, let’s see, if it’s narrative control, then to apply this article to my safety and security web site, I want to control what people are hearing me say about non-lethal protection and personal security.

    But…if it’s politics then I’d have to say…GO JOHN and SARA!!!

  • Guest

    Do you really think Obama has any experience?  First, he is as naïve as a seventh grader the first time out on the playground with a bunch of bullies; he cannot take care of America because he has no clue.  Secondly, you watch him take this country into a depression – as stated by many economy gurus and professors from many different interest groups, both left and right.

    • http://kdcinfo.com Guest

      Bush had a clue? (Even with his military experience?) Bush already brought us into our depression, or on the brink of. Can anyone seriously do any worse??? Either McCain or Obama? Absolutely not! It’s just a matter of how less damage or how quickly they can provide damage control…

      Because of what Bush has done to us, it’s nearly a lost cause for whoever gets in. So the question is, can McCain really depart from Bush’s concepts so we don’t actually get worse? My question is, how can he do this if he had been agreeing with him 90% of the time?

    • Guest

      You seem to accept 26 years of inside the Beltway "Experiecne" VOTING 90% of the time for the FAILED Bush Policies, VOTING against Veteran’s Health Benefit Increases (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, proposed a shame G.I. Bill in OPPOSITION to the 21st Century G.I. Bill – ("too expensive") proposing a Tax Plan that actually SAVES him $373,600 vs Obama’s skimpy plan that only saves him $5,643 –  all comming from a Campaign run by 163 PAID Corporate Lobbyists (and the same crew that "fed" us Bush) as a better option? Seems no matter WHO wins, a "depression" has been set in motion by 8 years of greedy cronyism tainted by fundamential dogma over compentence . . . so maybe we should consider someone as "naive as a seventh grader" . . . . couldn’t do worse than CONTINUING this current McCain supported policy. The Republicans have a better handle on running the media  (media and internet) to avoid the real issues facing America and solutions.

  • http://www.iyazam.com Hillel

    I just dont understand how Americans after 9/11 can vote for Barak Obama. A President with an Islamic name!  Do Americans have such a short memory?

    • http://woodlogsplitter.com/ Mike Log

      I do not think that he had these kinds of roots if you ask me.

  • http://gamezat.net/ ?????

    ohhh nice video

    Another great article

    thank you


  • Guest

    thanks Jason for your article. I like your opinion on the  web trance. Wish  to see more and glad to know about you.lingerie wholesale



  • http://www.portalmaonaroda.com.br fornecedores de informatica


  • http://www.leadaccessories.com china digital printing

    question put forth in your “Editor’s Note”, I will respond as the owner of an online retail business. I find the easiest way to answer the concerns of my customers, regardless of the source of their concerns (or questions), is to be accessible for direct answers. Most online businesses do not provide a phone number, and rarely answer emails.

  • http://www.tglass-bottle.com china essentail bottle

    These gadgets will be divided in three basic categories: home control devices, media control devices and home phones. All the gadgets will feature touch-screens in sizes ranging from 4.3 to 10 inches, support Android as an operating system, and connect to the Web through wi-fi or wired ethernet

  • http://www.silk-in-china.com china silk

    We expect to see these products in the market before the end of the year, made by well-known companies.

  • http://www.roosan.cn crastal

    Since I keep my own bathroom sparkling clean with a strict regimen of preventative care (ahem), I sought out a test bathroom in the home of a Grist staffer who will remain unnamed. The bathroom she shares with six roommates proved the perfect testing ground.

  • Join for Access to Our Exclusive Web Tools
  • Sign Up For The Free Newsletter