You Lie 2.0: How disrespect can get you thousands of new friends and a million dollars
At first, Congressman Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's health-care address looked like a career killer. Members of both parties blasted him for his dramatic breech of decorum, and most Americans, regardless of ideology, reacted with disgust.
But the South Carolina Republican used the incident to build a massive audience that has helped him raise more than a million dollars in new campaign funds. He's arguably more influential than ever before.
Welcome to Twitter-era politics, where a moment of fame -- even one as inglorious as Wilson's -- can translate into political power.
The night Wilson shouted "you lie" at the President of the United States, he hired a new-media strategist, who went to work immediately.
Within 24 hours, the Congressman's Twitter account had sent out 50 new messages, and his followers had increased by an unprecedented 500 percent to over 10,000.
Without any sincere apology to the American people or to his fellow Members of Congress, Wilson managed to create friends or, in Web 2.0 lingo, "picked up people" wherever they were -- on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
He replicated the Campaign 2.0 success of his political foe, President Obama, and increased his fans on his congressional Facebook fanpage to more than 11,000.
At the same time, he also equipped his Facebook campaign page with a donation option and added the following pitch:
"Washington Democrats and their liberal allies want to divert attention away from the concerns about the massive government takeover of health care. In fact, they have made me their Number One target -- already raising millions of dollars for my opponent. But I will not give up and I will not back down from our fight. We will not be muzzled. Will you please make a donation to help me fight back against these unwavering attacks? Thank you for standing with me in this fight.".
The result of the Congressman's breach of protocol and subsequent social-media broadcasts: Enormously enhanced name recognition and more than $1.5 million dollars in donations in the week following his outburst (and as of today $2.7 million).
What is most interesting here is how a whole new kind of message spin has emerged -- one that specifically focuses on targeting new media channels and is directed by a whole new kind of PR expert.
It's not just about talk radio and the Internet anymore. In the old days, Wilson's best course of action would have been to sincerely and thoughtfully apologize and then hope that his constituents would forgive him. Not any more: Today's messages are not about damage control but about turning a wrong into a right.
In other contexts, such misbehavior is not acceptable to anyone: Kanye West was shunned by his celebrity colleagues for jumping on stage at the VMA awards during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech; Serena Williams lost her match and received a fine of $10,500 dollars for insulting a line judge during the US Open finals on the same weekend.
Both found themselves in the dog house, both apologized profoundly, not only directly to the person they harmed, but also to the public. Their standings were arguably hurt by their behavior, while Wilson's appears to have been enhanced among those who share his views.
In a recent tweet, he says, "I will not back down from speaking the truth. Please stand with me.".
In Wilson's world, shouting at the president during an address to Congress is now called "speaking the truth." And by being able to communicate with thousands of followers directly on social networks, he can have his own version on the truth, unfiltered by journalists, academics, or pundits. He can directly spin the public, and doesn't need to worry nearly as much about spinning what we normally think of as the "opinion makers."
Democracy may well be better off as a result of the Internet's ability to build audience and supply that audience with direct, unfiltered communication. But as Wilson has shown, it is also a challenge for civil society, loosening norms of public behavior, and giving those who wish to cater to the extremes powerful new tools.