Unscaling political parties and disintermediation

Unscaling was not a  phrase I was familiar with in a political context, though the basic principle is certainly well known: conventional business paradigms are being disrupted by technology.  To unscale refers to the specific act of “dismantling all large-scale, vertically integrated, mass-market institutions”.

I have been writing about the disintermediation effect that we are witnessing during the US primary elections. While the current US election cycle is an especially vivid example, there has been a global trend in political establishment disruption, with the rise, for example, of the Podemos party in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the AAP in India.

In particular, Podemos made use of owned media to build its brand awareness.

“I think that what Podemos shows, and what other social movement groups like Juventud Sin Futuro or Oficina Precaria show, is that you can combine the autonomous, digital media campaigns with an active reaching-out to mass media”, says Cristina Flesher Fominaya, author of Social Movements and Globalization

These disruptions have been in the form of new parties. What is different about the US is that we are seeing long-established mainstream parties being disrupted. Applying the idea of unscaling in this context, media disintermediation does not just apply to the relationship between politicians and the mainstream media. It also applies to the relationship between politicians and their parties. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have not only had to fight issues with media coverage, they have also had to battle against their party’s establishment. Their success is an example of successful unscaling.

Republican or Democratic validation used to matter — it would get candidates in front of newspaper editorial boards and on TV, access to phone banks and help draw the live crowds. Today, YouTube stars have bigger audiences than most TV shows, blogs cut out the media middleman and Meetup groups and Twitter get the crowds organized

In parties with a primary or voting system to nominate candidates, new media has now provided an opportunity for candidates to bypass their party’s establishment and still effectively campaign for nominations. This means that the disruption to the political mainstream may not follow the antecedent of new parties but as insurgent candidates taking over established ones. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party may prove to be a more typical model in the medium-term than Podemos.  At the very least, we are in a transitory phase before this vision of startup political parties can become a reality:

The economics of unscale predict that many startup parties will challenge the big parties and steal their members. Some will catch on, re-bundle voters around issues they care about and reach enough scale in a new way to have influence.

Media disintermediation and priming in politics

NB: This post was published in a previous blog and imported into this one. Please forgive any formatting issues.

Having posted earlier on the way agenda setting and priming have functioned in the US Presidential Primaries, I thought it useful to take a look at how social media affects this process, focusing on the impact of owned media. My interest in this was also stimulated by listening to a number of podcasts and having read articles that seemed bemused about why the largely negative press coverage of Donald Trump has not affected his success.

By making some issues more salient in people’s mind (agenda setting), mass media can also shape the considerations that people take into account when making judgments about political candidates or issues (priming).

Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models / Dietram A. Scheufele & David Tewksbury

In a traditional model involving agenda setting / priming, the media’s impact extends through the entire lifecycle of the process. Not only does the media’s content set the agenda in the public’s mind, it exerts an ongoing priming influence. This is due to the fact that the “mainstream” media used to be a primary source of content about the issue. As I’ve touched upon previously, the media played an important role in the agenda setting process that made Trump a viable candidate.

However, the disintermediation effect that social media has had on news means that priming (and possibly agenda setting) now occurs from a wider variety of sources.

In this election cycle, the “traditional entities” – the political parties, the media and the donor class – have been “cut out” as middlemen, said Gibbs. Outsider candidates have been able to “build an audience, deliver a message, and create a platform, all of their own construction.” Candidates can speak directly to voters through social media; Bernie Sanders in particular, despite a lack of media coverage compared to Donald Trump, was able to raise millions, said Gibbs. And although he has made extensive use of media coverage, Trump has circumvented both the Republican Party and the donor class.

TIME’s Nancy Gibbs: The Disintermediation of Media and Politics

Essentially, this means that the media mix available to campaigns has changed dramatically. Most importantly, they can:

  • Become their own content creators on social media and push this content to the audience.
  • Leverage independent new media entities (especially those that favour the campaign) to push out content.

As a result, the weightage given to the traditional mainstream media is less, while that of the campaign’s owned content has increased. While this process has taken place over a number of years, the gap between the tone of the mainstream media’s campaign of the Trump campaign and the connection that campaign has built with voters is its most dramatic incarnation.

The very simplified diagrams below illustrate the change.

Agenda Setting in Trump’s Triumph – Politics, Policy & Media

A note about one of the many things that struck me while observing the Republican primaries. I thought it an interesting exercise to evaluate this using the agenda setting marketing theory.

Agenda-setting theory describes the “ability [of the news media] to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda.”

Using this, it is apparent that the media’s overwhelming coverage of the Trump campaign acted to prime the electorate to be open to his messaging. This is consistent with the role of the media in an agenda-setting context. They did not tell the voters what to think about Trump. Rather, by talking about his attributes, they directed a receptive primary voter audience to Trump and his messaging.

The media’s coverage told voters that:

  • Trump is interesting.
  • Trump is different.
  • Trump is an outsider.

Given the current zeitgeist is anti-establishment, this created a perfect platform for Trump to push his message. With social media providing campaigners with their publishing platforms, the role of media organisations will be increasingly confined to that of agenda-setting, while their role as opinion makers will continue to diminish.

Authenticity and Framing

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This post about the repackaging of Hilary Clinton (in a manner similar to that of the sitcom character Leslie Knope) struck a cord with me; particularly in the context of authenticity and framing.

She was preening and privileged, removed from the experience of normal people. She was too used to power and money to understand anyone but Washington insiders. She was so focused on her own career that she couldn’t hear the cries of those who were hurting.

So the Democratic convention did exactly what Parks did — and even suggested Clinton had a bit of Knope in her. She worked so hard she impressed political opponents. She fought for what she believed in tirelessly. She never quit, even when things seemed dire.

Those who attack her, then, are only playing into the Knope-like Clinton Democrats tried to build up — a tireless striver who suffers the slings and arrows of criticism to come out the other side, stronger.

A common refrain about politicians is that they need to be more authentic. While there may be a desire for this in politics, it should also be pointed out that authenticity should not be confused with being likeable (as Donald Trump’s relative success can testify to). In fact, with the proper framing, a candidate who is authentic but not likeable, can be pitched successfully to voters.

If the perception of the candidate is that they are a political insider, policy wonk and technocrat, as in the case of Hilary Clinton (or as we had in Sri Lanka with Ranil Wickremesinghe), it is these characteristics that need to be seen as virtues when framing the choice of election contenders. The pitch to voters should be that these attributes are required to solve to issues of the day.

This a far better expenditure of time and effort, than forcing the candidate into classicly inauthentic-authentic behaviour such as kissing babies.

Post-truth politics and facts

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With media gatekeeping being the topic of my previous post, this article brought up some points that are worth retreading. In many ways, it is a lament for the death of gatekeeping and a statement against what has been described as “post-truth politics”.

This was the first major vote in the era of post-truth politics: the listless remain campaign attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact had been badly debased.

Correctly, the article ties this into the prevailing distrust of experts. It also brings social media into play, and bemoans the fact that,

In the news feed on your phone, all stories look the same – whether they come from a credible source or not. And, increasingly, otherwise-credible sources are also publishing false, misleading, or deliberately outrageous stories. “Clickbait is king, so newsrooms will uncritically print some of the worst stuff out there, which lends legitimacy to bullshit,”

I have sympathy for both these views, but from a campaigning perspective the implications are clear, particularly if you represent a mainstream organisation that would traditionally rely on mainstream media networks and conventional messaging. The two key points are:

  1. Facts and experts have their place but the use of these must connect with the audience. They must be presented in a way that is:
  • personally relevant to the audience
  • connects emotionally,
  • and be sufficiently consequential to their lives to influence their decision.

2. If the media is no longer a reliable (if tacit) partner for campaigns, then the onus is on the campaign to maximise outreach and engagement via its own media platforms. Owned social media becomes a crucial publishing platform in this scenario.

Media gatekeeping & campaigning

 NB: This post was published in a previous blog and imported into this one. please forgive any formatting issues.

Having made frequent references to media disintermediation, I thought it would be instructive  to take a look at media gatekeeping. Particularly in light of the previous post on Brexit and the idea that electorates were “tired of experts”.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 7.21.20 AM
Source

Media gatekeeping in a traditional context meant that the flow of information and opinion went through a filter consisting of the traditional mainstream media (MSM). This meant that relatively conventional opinions (either side of the prevalent political spectrum) were what the audience was presented with and told they had to chose from.

However, digital media now means that the role of MSM as gatekeepers is greatly diminished. A new visualisation of this process would now look something like this:

In this model, if the news information (N1,N3) from alternative sources and the campaign is discarded by the traditional gatekeepers, they can bypass the latter and reach their audience.

Not only are the options available to organisations to bypass the gatekeepers and communicate directly with the audience far more powerful, there is also a proliferation of information sources. These can be new media such as digital only news providers, powerful individual influencers or the audience members own social networks (e.g. friends and family). It should be noted that the relative weightage given to each news source does have demographic differentiations.

However, for a broad based campaign, the implications of this change in gatekeeping is that not only the content presented have to change but  as I’ve written previously, the media mix that a campaign has to deploy is more diverse and complex.