Digital Absurdist
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Digital Absurdist

Selective Pressures Will Usher In A New Age of Politics

Sixty years after the shift towards television, the Internet is now changing the political landscape again, this time towards virality

Selection of Post-TV Era Presidents : Obama, Bush, Reagan, Kennedy, and selection of Pre-TV Era Presidents: Johnson, Arthur, Lincoln, McKinley (photos from the Library of Congress)

Following the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between Nixon and Kennedy, the political landscape changed forever. Visuals took centre stage and suddenly the relative importance of what was said was overshadowed by how it was said.

The forces of natural selection show that as environments change over time, only the best-adapted animals survive to propagate their genes. The political environment changed dramatically in 1960, orienting towards appearances and adaptability to this visual medium. Just as the big cats and open spaces of the African Savannah help select for the fastest gazelles, the landscapes upon which politics is played helps select for the most adaptive politicians.

Prior to television, citizens would form opinions of candidates through radio, newsprint articles, photographs or in-person events. As televisions became widespread in American homes, political campaigns had to adapt to this technological change. A candidate’s hair-style, smile, eye contact and brow sweat during a debate went from being largely irrelevant to being viewed by millions. Given human biases towards attractive people, fielding candidates who simply looked more attractive became part of political strategy.

It could be argued that since 1960 the selective pressures of television have yielded more attractive politicians. Arguably the presidents of the television era from Kennedy to Obama have been on average more handsomely photogenic than at any time in history, with Reagan even being a literal movie star. The pre-television political landscape selected relatively less for good looks, allowing for emphasis to be placed on other skills or attributes. It is interesting to consider whether Lincoln would even be nominated as a candidate in the era of televised debates, campaign tv spots, press conferences and photo-ops.

Sixty years after the shift towards television, the Internet is now changing the political landscape again. With each passing election cycle the electorate is increasingly informed via online channels, meaning that politicians will need to succeed online in order to succeed at the ballot box. This is exerting new selective pressures for skills, attributes and campaigns that had previously been less relevant to electability.

The potential for content to go viral is a new political tool that puts pressure on candidates to adapt. Raising money from donors to spend on TV commercials is much less economical than a well worded tweet that gets retweeted by thousands, viewed by millions, and which draws the attention of major TV news outlets. Cambridge Analytica highlighted the economics of Internet campaigning, through targeting and content tailoring. Posting a good social media meme, targeted at the right audience is a different political game than creating a good TV commercial for prime time broadcast TV.

Virality has risen to prominence as important for candidates, just as a welcoming smile became increasingly relevant post-1960. The ability to speak, act or present oneself online could determine whether your message is consumed by thousands of voters or millions. It matters less if your 20-point infrastructure spending plan published was endorsed by world-leading economists, if your political opponent’s tweet had an engaging meme that was liked by 10 million people, again. He appears witty and relevant, while you…. don’t appear. In the Digital Age, it matters less what you say or how you say it, but how viral you can make it.

If television helped select for more beautifully photogenic leaders, the Internet will help select for more viral leaders. Beauty and virality do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, as a beautiful face does not guarantee more or fewer clicks. In fact a less-photogenic face may have more viral potential, as long as it can cause people to engage and click “share”. We may have reached peak-beauty of our politicians, but we are likely just beginning to see how viral our politicians can become.

Watching the Kennedy/Nixon debate video, it is striking to see such a respectful debate, with candidates refraining from interrupting one another, pandering to a studio audience, or trying to sneak in viral one-liners quips. In our current political landscape, both Nixon and Kennedy would likely be maladapted, unable to compete in a modern political debate.

In the analogy of evolutionary biology, politicians are the gazelles, news media organizations are the lions and the electorate is the African savannah. Through our attention, we put selective pressures on both predators and prey by dictating the playing field. The more we comment on politicians’ tweets, or share short soundbites, or “like” viral memes, the more we allow ourselves and others to be influenced, thereby shaping a political landscape that rewards the best tweeters, soundbiters and memers.

We could shift our attention to help select for different attributes other than virality, but shifting our attention would mean ignoring the high-quality looped GIF that has a million retweets. No easy task to be sure. In the meantime, skilled legislators, negotiators and leaders will stay away from politics, unless they are viral enough to win elections.

Perhaps in 50 years time, we will look back and compare the memes, tweets and selfies of Presidents of this quaint time, wondering how candidates with such poor selfie skills ever made it to political office.

Matthew is a writer, animator and content creator. Follow and subscribe on YouTube

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