Guest blog: Peak Dirty by Lamia Imam

Peak Dirty

There has been much talk of the fallout of Dirty Politics – especially in the realm of Social Media. It has been argued that much of the outrage is limited to social media rather than the wider public. Matthew wrote an excellent post on this last week. However, polls from last night show that maybe it is starting to spill out of the social media beltway and into the “mainstream”. Although that didn’t stop Paul Henry to try and prove the counter point via his daughter. (Viewer discretion advised if you are a politically informed person)

As a millennial, I have a large presence on social media. At least the ones that count – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. There’s also Instagram (which I don’t use), Pintrest, YouTube, Vine, SnapChat, and Tumblr. We are inundated with options. When I worked on my social media project for the Congressional Research Service a question that came up time and time again was – impact. What is the impact? There are many analytical tools such as a Klout that can quantitatively measure the impact of social media. PR and Advertising firms have been using various models to do the same for many years now. But we found that impact was very difficult to measure in social media. There are many consumers of social media who consume without footprints – that is they don’t “like”, “favorite”, “retweet”, or comment. They are the lurkers who watch and then walk away. How do we measure that? By traffic? How do we know their engagement level? By education? By income?

There will always be a group of people who will dismiss social media and a group of people who believe it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Let’s take this example for instance:


Giovanni Tiso tweeted this and it has been retweeted 818 times. What is the marginal increase in views as it gets more and more RTs? I have seen it on my timeline at least once a week. How many of the same people are seeing the same content over and over again? How many of us are repeating ourselves to the same audience who already agree with us – for example on discussions of ‘rape culture’, which has been in the public sphere for some time now.

My hypothesis is that the discussion has to reach a peak level before it can spill out. And for it to reach peak level, those who are active have to keep repeating themselves. Once social media is saturated, it then spills on to the mainstream. Example – the talk of white privilege. All of a sudden this week – Fox news is now talking about white privilege. This has been the topic of discussion on social media for at least 2 years.

Let me give you another real life New Zealand example – asset sales. I worked in Labour during the 2011 election. One can argue that the entire 2011 election was about asset sales. It was the flavor of the campaign. Labour (and Greens) ads heavily emphasized the opposition. As a staff member I felt I lived and breathed asset sales. I wasn’t even the advisor assigned to that portfolio and I felt I knew everything about it. So the election ended, the left lost to National & Co. Sometime shortly after the election, at a Leader’s Office meeting our correspondence staff reads out a letter to us from an upset constituent. “Did you guys know that National is planning to sell assets and what is Labour planning to do about it”?

For those who are frustrated that there has been too much focus on Dirty Politics and it hasn’t materialized in voter perception – we are nowhere near the peak.

Lamia Imam (B.A. Hons and LLB, Canterbury) is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at the LBJ School of Public Affairs (University of Texas at Austin), focusing on election law, empirical & financial analysis of public policy, campaigns and public relations.  She previously worked at the NZ Parliament for the Labour Leader’s Office, at the Office of Treaty Settlements, and at the Texas House of Representatives. She has presented, as part of a team of researchers, on the use of social media by congressional committees at the Congressional Research Service in Washington D.C.