Politicians Battle For Narrative Control On The Web

    September 12, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

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.