Brought to you by the Real Law Editorial Team
As the story goes, congressional candidate Lyndon Johnson wanted to make an outrageous charge against his opponent. His campaign manager was shocked. “We can’t say that, Lyndon,” he said. “It’s not true.” “Of course it’s not,” Johnson barked at him, “but let’s make the bastard deny it.”
Controlling the conversation in an election with the right vocabulary is a time-honored tactic. A recent blog post in The Economist gave examples of how it’s happening this year with terms like “socialist” and “social Darwinist.” Placing and monitoring influential terms in the marketplace of ideas is a powerful way to create and sustain the advantage in political campaigns. As a result, knowing which terms are winning is crucial for media analysts, politicians, their campaign managers, and reporters. This can even come into play for lawyers. Corporate risk analysis and complex regulation are both affected by the conversation going on in the media.
Tools for a New Era
The need for this kind of intelligence and analysis has prompted the creation of new tools to deliver them. Thanks to the power of cloud computing and big data, it is possible to collect and combine information like never before. It also happens faster: analysts can quickly identify relationships, coincidences and coverage volume over time, without having to laboriously read each document—or hire teams to do it for them. The power of new media analysis platforms is just starting to be realized. More data from more content sources means more variables and more subtle truths. These can range from nationwide macro trends to the media attention on specific campaign catchphrases. But the value of this information will be correspondingly larger for those who can master the new tools, with deeper insights and bigger ideas.
What’s in a Term? 2008 vs. 2012
For a small example, let’s look at key media terms from the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. The 2008 election was tough, with the race often very close. Through the summer, mainstream international coverage on key themes like “swing states,” “undecided voters,” and “endorsements” tracked very closely until the very last month of the campaign. Then the Republican candidate took a significant lead in mentions related to “undecided voters” and a smaller lead in “endorsements.” These terms were also, by far, much more discussed in the media than the third-term “swing states.” But ultimately, the Democratic candidate led in “swing states” and carried the election.
Now, in 2012 at the same point in the election cycle, the story is quite different. Unlike in 2008, there is an incumbent as well as a challenger, changing the news dynamic. This year, it’s the “swing states” story that is getting the most traction in the media by a huge margin—more than the coverage of the other two terms combined. Also, it’s the Republican candidate who seems to be leading the “swing states” narrative.
Each campaign season has its own ecosystem of news that responds to the messaging and events of the day as well as the lessons of previous campaigns. This kind of analysis allows you to not only look at what is driving discussion overall, but also isolate and chart the patterns of any chosen issue across a chosen time frame. This empowers people to then take informed steps with the proper context, either by leveraging the current dialogue or taking steps to change it. Alternatively, this insight can be compared with other data points. One of those data points has become social media.
Broadening the Conversation
With the dramatic rise of social media in the last two election cycles, political analysts have been looking for ways to understand this new phenomenon in the context of their work. Its inherently data- and connection-driven nature should mean that researchers can learn a lot very quickly. But it is still very early days. One recent study, titled “Limits of Electoral Predictions Using Twitter,” from Wellesley College and Oviedo University in Spain, found the correlations inconclusive. Another study that monitored Dutch elections in 2011 found that nuanced analysis is necessary to understand the real drivers behind the numbers.
It is easy to be sympathetic, though. As in modern legal scholarship, the amount of data can overwhelm one’s ability to analyze it properly. Ironically, the solution to so much data may be even more data.
The Next Generation
A new cutting-edge project perhaps points the way forward. Undertaken by the Fox School of Business at Temple University, it combines professional media reports with social media data. Named the Media Ecosystem Project, it is designed to be a real-time index of U.S. political sentiment. It aggregates from a huge combination of sources, measuring the real-time activity of thousands of individuals in social, print and broadcast media.
The first product of the Media Ecosystem Project is the Translating the Effectiveness of Media into Performance (TEMPO) index. TEMPO analyzes media-related data for more than 900 candidates nationwide. Its stated goal is to study different types of media, their effects on one another, and how they ultimately influence campaigns. Each candidate’s TEMPO score is drawn from tens of thousands of data points derived from blogs, social media outlets, web analytics, print and broadcast media, and campaign websites. Even now, you can see that social media deviates from the larger narrative, but why and how are not yet clear.
The possibilities of the data are compelling, and great minds are working on it. The only question now is when it will arrive in your office.