A major reason President Obama won the elections of 2008 and 2012 was because he and his advisers harnessed the power of the data-mining capacities of the computer and the mass appeal of the Internet. Obama for America polled, communicated with, organized and milked supporters for donations more effectively than any other candidate in American history.
If we look at our national past, we see three other presidents who used the media of their day to sway public opinion to change the nation.
The first president to use the media to serve his purposes was Teddy Roosevelt. His term of office began with the death of President William McKinley to an assassin’s bullet in 1901. McKinley, by example, taught Roosevelt what not to do in dealing with the press.
Back in the 1890s before Roosevelt became president, two New York newspaper publishers, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, had national influence because of the size of their publications and the use of paid reporters. Other newspapers throughout the country used the New York World and the Morning Journal as sources for their stories.
The publishers competed with each other and used sensationalized news accounts to stir up public sentiment against the Spanish who were trying to put down an insurrection in their Cuban colony. The writing style of Pulitzer and Hearst became know as yellow journalism.
Public opinion, stirred up by these two papers, successfully pressured President McKinley to ask Congress to go war against Spain, against his better judgment. Teddy Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy at the time, observed this new media power and decided to use it to his advantage when he became president.
Teddy was masterful in using newspapers to shape public opinion. T.R. was able to bring an end to unhealthy corporate meatpacking practices in companies like Armour and Company. He did this by publicly supporting and advertising the socialist journalist Upton Sinclair’s book "The Jungle."
People were shocked at Sinclair’s stories about how rats, rat dung and rat poison all ended up in their breakfast sausage. So many Americans quit eating meat as a result that it was the meatpacking industry itself that lobbied Congress to pass meat inspection laws to regain public trust.
Franklin D. Roosevelt learned from his distant cousin’s example to use the new media of his era, the radio, to gather support for his New Deal programs during the Great Depression of the 1930s. FDR’s radio “Fireside Chats” allowed him to use his powerful and engaging personality to bring about major changes to the government. That same personality came through to harness the nation’s support for U.S. involvement in World War II.
President Ronald Reagan, a former actor, knew well how to harness the power of the next media, television, to bring about conservative changes to the nation in the 1980s. Reagan’s engaging personality and story-telling gift drew both Democrats and Republicans to his point of view to change the direction of the nation yet again.
As demonstrated by these four presidents, using emerging media to shape public opinion is very powerful.
President Obama used electronic social media to win re-election, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to use it to bring about the changes he wants in the nation. Time will tell whether he will be able to harness support or whether social media will turn around and crush its most effective proponent.