The limits of privacy, for public people

This year’s Federal Election has been hailed as a competition of social media, with deliberate attempts to imitate the social media campaign of Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, not to mention the hiring by the Federal ALP of some of the people behind it.

Naturally, the  Australian context has some differences, since voting is mandatory there will be less emphasis on getting potential voters to enrol as part of the campaign, and likely there will be more emphasis on connecting the political personages with the people on the ground. Already, we have seen Kevin Rudd share the political spot light with his cabinet, which is politically astute on a number of fronts. Firstly, it shows that he is more self-aware of how he presents when he monopolises the political spotlight over his fellow party members (as opposed to against the Opposition); secondly, it shifts the sense of the recognisable face of the ALP towards a broader collective of people that the public can tune in to. Not only does this off-set the decimation of the Cabinet after the change of leadership, and the loss of a large number of publicly recognisable ALP front-benchers, but it presents a unified political front while off-setting the appearance of faceless power brokers. I would consider this to be a significant contributor to the jump in polling.

Ownership of public discourse

The focus of this particular entry is to make a number of observations around the way social media is changing the landscape of politics. Firstly, I think there is a rather cynical observation to be made about the disconnection between the established and current generation of politicians and their use of social media. It is a public secret that a vast number of politicians have staffers who provide commentary on their behalf them on Twitter and Facebook. These become more of an extension of their public profile, rather than a true opportunity to access their personal space. There are some exceptions, and some of my favourite political commentary comes from live tweets from politicians on the floor at the time, such as the interactions between MLCs Phelps, Sharpe, and Faehrmann in April 2012 during the debate on whether the Legislative Council would in-principle endorse Marriage Equality.

The real question is, if new technologies are defying the established lines of communication between the people and their representatives, and thereby returns the ownership of public discourse to the populace, are we sufficiently competent to be able to engage in the political discourse on our own terms?

The elision of the private-public boundary

Social media seems to be increasingly eliding the line between the public and the private spheres for those people who hold public office. It is my observation that we are now experiencing a society with changing social norms of privacy; one where I expect our fundamental constructions of privacy to be radically challenged in the next decade. Public officials, I contend, represent the first to group to have to reconcile this nigh-contradiction in terms, and that this will broaden very quickly to include other public personalities; note, that TV and film celebrities, as well as royalty, already experience an intrusion of this nature, but I think the difference is occurring on the way new social media is changing the way the public can and does intrude.

These increased demands of accessibility and intrusion are making it more and more difficult for attain a genuine private life, or to sequester a portion of a lived experience into a private space. That is, I think there is a greater social expectation for people in office, to still be representing their constituency in private circles, and I think this is because this intrusion is causing us to increasingly conflate the public office with the person in question. I think a rather interesting example of where we have seen this tested was Alan Jones’ comments at the USyd Young Liberal club. While I don’t condone the content of his statements, it does highlight that there are indistinct lines around what we seem to hold as public and private, and under what context we consider a public persona is entitled to make ‘off-the-record’ comment. I think that this is partly attributable to the public, by and large, is unable to separate comment from commentator.

As the networking of social media increases, there is a simultaneous intrusion of the public interest into the lives of our public persona (note, the use of our as to signify some entitled sense of ownership over these people), and an increased expectation of them being accessible personalities. As Facebook and Twitter bring these people into proximity to our own personal lives in a fashion that is both seemingly direct and personable, it easily lends itself to an assumption that these produce intimate connections with our representatives, and becomes a surrogate for actual political interaction. I think what we are seeing is a shift in emphasis upon placing a social obligation upon our political representatives to be effective communicators of policy (ostensibly public formal positions) and more towards being communicators of personality (drifting more towards cults of personality and leitkultur). In this, there is an interesting juxtaposition of our desire to be in the proximity of real and perceived power, and an increasing desire to humanise and connect with our representatives in a political landscape that is increasingly disaffected by a cynical public.

As Facebook and twitter bring these people into proximity to our own personal lives in a fashion that is both seemingly direct and personable, it easily lends itself to an assumption that these produce intimate connections with our representatives, and becomes a surrogate for actual political interaction.

Ownership of the public discourse

In attempting to humanise these public persona, we are effectively demanding insight into their private lives. However, there is an intrinsic contradiction int his attempt. As the public, we are unable to escape the fact we can only view them through the public lens. That is the means by which we receive and consume their private lives is automatically filtered through a public medium, whether its Twitter, Facebook, tabloid press or other journal articles. We aren’t directly engaging with these individuals, and we are not in the immediate sphere of their private lives. Consequently, whatever human foibles we receive are, if not deliberately manufactured, at least intrinsically framed by the lens that reports it, or construed through our interpretation. On one level we could theoretically apply a Death of the Author critique at the publicly available commentary of our public figures.

This brings me to this notion about who owns the discourse. Part of the legitimacy intrinsic in public office is the notion that instatement into office can only be achieved through the consent of the people, and are therefore obligated to ensure that this ephemeral ‘will of the people’ be represented in office. Even if we set aside the issue of how that consent has been achieved, and whether it was manufactured (however you wish to construct that issues), this immediately segues into a much more complicated discussion around the voice of that representative. A public official, in this context, is in some sense a synecdoche (as a single individual they ostensibly encapsulate the voice of the constituency). Most politicians, who aren’t entirely independent, have to navigate a (sometimes) difficult tension between the needs and public perceptions of their constituency against the interests of the party machine. The best results (from the perspective of the public official) are achieved through an alignment of public opinion with party platform, but that immediately returns us to questions of how manufactured the political consent of the people is (one need look no further than Fairfax media and Murdoch).

Here, I believe we reach the crux of the issue. It is an example of Metcalfe’s law in action in relation to the increasing inter-connectivity and complexity of the network of social media. Ownership of commentary, and ownership of editorialisation is being democratised, moving out of the hands of hierarchical traditional media structures and into a network. It is this, that I contend, necessitates a change of social disposition to providing public comment. Significantly, the way that these technologies bring the people (more than the office) into our proximity, allows us to deconstruct them with greater detail than ever before.

The real question is, if new technologies are defying the established lines of communication between the people and their representatives, and thereby returns the ownership of public discourse to the populace, are we sufficiently competent to be able to engage in the political discourse on our own terms? This inevitably begs the question of how we (or who) define political competence, and on what terms.

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One thought on “The limits of privacy, for public people

  1. Pingback: Our Evolution Will be Televised | Rhyme and Reason

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