The Long Tail of Politics: social media and the Tea Party movement

5 Nov


Will the Tea Party mean the end of the party in Washington?


America has swerved rightwards.

Energised by the Tea Party movement, the Republicans this week enacted a spectacular revenge on the governing Democrats in the mid-term elections, overturning at least 60 seats in Congress.

Many will explain this away by citing disaffection with the ‘slow progress’ of President Barack Obama’s reforms.

But something less obvious was also at play.

Before we go any further, let me be clear: I am not seeking to express any political view or affiliation here. This is a media blog – and I want to explore the story of how American conservatives have seemingly stolen a digital march on the supposedly tech-savvy Democrats to organise, spread ideas and win hearts and minds.

Back in 2008, Obama’s campaign team was feted for its creative use of social technologies to amass millions of small donations, build ‘hope’ and to get the vote out.

While FDR had mastered radio in the early 1930s and JFK had aced the new medium of television 30 years later, Obama stood majestically astride the emerging social media revolution, coaxing it to serve his every aim.

He used YouTube for free advertising, and those videos were watched for 14.5million hours (equivalent to $47m of TV advertising). He amassed two and a half million Facebook supporters. And he mobilised 1.5 million volunteers through

“Were it not for the Internet,” opined Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of The Huffington Post, after Obama’s inauguration, “Barack Obama would not be president”.

Two years later, the biggest story of this week’s mid-terms seems to be how the Tea Party, a grassroots anti-tax, anti-state coalition with no central command or leader, has become a fully-fledged political force.


So, how has this confederation of vocal conservatives used new media to organise and grow its political base?

In short, it has grasped the single most important, game-changing power the social web has given us: the ability, no matter how far apart we are geographically or how introverted we might be, to connect and coalesce around an idea or a goal.

Marketers have been telling us for years that, in commerce, this power has created a Long Tail of millions of previously invisible niche markets. So, for example, a business selling a specific type of obscure magazine would only need to find a thousand enthusiasts among six billion Earth-dwellers to have a successful business. That would have been utterly impossible 10 years ago but is distinctly do-able now.

In the American mid-terms we have just witnessed the birth of The Long Tail of Politics.

Previously disconnected, the anti-government groups from Texas to North Dakota and Pennsylvania to Oregon suddenly found themselves part of a network – and the anger of the whole was far greater than the sum of the anger of those individual parts. The Tea Party connected local groups to the national conversation and Tea Party politics suddenly had a market.

Leading activists realised early in the movement’s short life that digital technology would be key to the growth of the movement and they embraced it in two key steps:


First, social media training has been a core strategy.

If online connections were enabling people to join the conversation then it was vital potential supporters understood the tools. Older people especially, while not digital natives, were potentially key participants who could otherwise have been left out.

So the Tea Party held training sessions everywhere. Organisations like Freedom Works and American Majority provided local Tea Party groups with practical guidance on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. They also equipped so-called ‘Teabaggers’ with focus group-tested political messaging. This enabled a consistent, coherent and palatable narrative to crowd out the barmier views on the evils of masturbation and Islam.

Ana Puig, the 38-year-old leader of Pennsylvania’s Kitchen Table Patriots (KTP) conservative group, recently told the Media Shift website: “I didn’t start using Facebook and Twitter until I got involved with the Tea Party movement.”

Puig used what she learnt to set up KTP’s website in early 2009. It has enabled her to gather 2,000 email addresses and the KTP Facebook site has nearly 4,000 fans. These resources have enabled them to hold dozens of rallies. They also organised an online boycott of Proctor & Gamble for having the temerity to advertise during a supposedly anti-conservative documentary and they’ve run ‘Get Out The Vote’ operations where there are conservative candidates across the state.

The result of all this activity? Legions of supporters who had neither previously been involved in media, nor, amazingly, in politics. In fact, many of the new faces on the Republican benches in the House of Representatives are almost entirely new to public life.


Second, having trained up, they deployed a devastatingly effective suite of social media tactics.

It was designed to spread simple ideas and messages direct to masses of new media consumers, by-passing a traditional media they saw as conformist, liberal and servile to the ‘political elite’. 


Activists prepare for battle

Supporters used the social networks to arrange protests and rallies across the country to undermine the Government and to put forward right wing candidates in local campaigns.

“Another smart decision we made was to tell people coming to a Tea Party rally to bring their digital cameras,” Christina Botteri, a founding member of the National Tea Party, told PRWeek. 

“We needed to take pictures and videos and post them online because otherwise it would be like the events didn’t happen. We knew the media, if they covered the events at all, wouldn’t cover it properly.”

Freedom Works created an interactive nationwide map highlighting candidates in races where the organisation was offering an endorsement. Users were able to upload their own personal views and ratings on candidates and the organisation used the feedback to decide whether to endorse a candidate whose conservative credentials it deemed sketchy.

Freedom Works is now creating new ‘digital activism tools’ and will soon have an iPhone app, which it says will integrate with Facebook and other social networks ‘to lower the barrier for communication and collaboration’ between individual tea parties.

Whether you agree with what they are saying, there’s no denying the Tea Party movement has deployed digital effectively to increase size and political influence.

Type “Tea Party” into Google and you get over 200 million hits. Search for Tea Party pages on Facebook and more than 2,000 pages are returned.

Social media has made it easier for dissenters’ to air their views and the Tea Party is becoming fluent in this new language.

The question now is whether the momentum will continue into the 2012 race for the White House or whether it will slip away, as I believe it has in Obama’s camp.


8 Responses to “The Long Tail of Politics: social media and the Tea Party movement”

  1. Matt Sykes November 5, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    This is good stuff and for me these are interesting thoughts and observations, and while it is clear that the Tea Party movement have made clever use of social media and have out flanked the Democrats at the Mid Terms – I think it might also be useful to point out (still in keeping with the apolitical standpoint) that there appears to more to the Tea Party movement than it first appears…

    There are claims that the movement is actually being part funded by the corporate dollar, and is not a grass roots movement.

    For emaple the New York Times economist Paul Krugman wrote that “the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects…”

    The speaker of the House of representatives – Nancy Pelosi stated “It’s not really a grassroots movement. It’s astroturf by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class.”

    This has also been picked up in an article in the New Yorker in August where Jane Mayer examined allegations that the billionaire Koch brothers, David H. Koch, Charles G. Koch and Koch Industries are providing financial support to the tea party movement through ‘Americans for Prosperity’.

    The Americans for Prosperity Foundation has received seven grants totaling $1,181,000 between 2004 to 2006, including $1,000,000 from the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, one of the Koch Family Foundations… this has all come out due to US press freedom laws, so this is surely just the tip of the iceberg for the amount of cash that has really been sunk in.

    This link to the Huffingtom Post:
    is interesting, and has a clip made by a film-maker intent on exposing the (Astro) Turf wars.

    The Koch’s run what is considered the largest private energy company in America. They have invested millions in organisations that have fought health care reform and proposals to reduce industrial pollution and cap greenhouse gases over the years so the ideological link to the Tea Party would appear to be obvious…

    A little left field for a media blog I’m aware, but I believe this is relevant – as however good the Tea Party campaign has been in the run up to the mid terms, and however savy it was with the use of social media in particular, it seems they might just have had a little extra help along the way!

  2. michaeltaggart November 5, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    Fascinating addition to my points Matt – thanks. Yes, I’d heard a bit about this ‘astro-turf’ idea, which is, frankly disgusting if it’s true.

    The Guardian recently ran a piece on how BP and other multi-nationals are bank-rolling Tea Party candidates who deny man-made climate change – so I think there are certainly questions that need to be answered.

    It’s difficult to know how to deal with it other than to ostracise those caught doing it.

    Thanks for contributing.

  3. Ian Thomas November 6, 2010 at 9:55 am #

    This is a really interesting post Michael.

    I’d be intrigued to hear your thoughts on whether the Tea Party movement would have gained any traction at all had it pursued, for instance, a traditional media relations strategy?

    My impression, from this side of the pond at least, is it’s such a rag-tag conglomeration of disparate interests that – only by teasing those strands together via the social web – was the movement ever in a position to give the impression of coherence.

    That suggests a high degree of opportunism among a small number of influential activists who sought to galvanise the sense of a national movement by branding it as the Tea Party. As a brand case study, it’s a fascinating reversal of the traditional brand model and definitely a phenomenon of the social web era as you suggest.

    Thanks for a really thought-provoking post.

    • michaeltaggart November 8, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

      Hi Ian and thanks for dropping in.

      I think in response to your question, the Tea Party did employ a very successful traditional media relations campaign – but it had different objectives than those served by the digital activism. The Tea Party used digital to build a movement and traditional media to tell the story of that movement so that non-participants would answer its call-to-action.

      In other words, it wouldn’t have been possible for the Tea Party to adopt only a traditional media relations strategy because there wouldn’t have been a Tea Party to publicise.

      That said press, TV and radio (mostly notably on the Fox Network, Wall Street Journal and in the New York Times) came at the precise point when the movement needed a bit of publicity to get non-participants to support its aims (by voting for the candidates it was endorsing).

      The story, of course, was of the sudden national anti-tax, anti government groundswell, which was beginning to look like an uprising. And that groundswell would not have been possible without the ability to connect in the way my blog describes.

      What I didn’t say in my blog was that the Tea Party movement seems to be built on Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘weak ties’ (see my previous blog). So I would expect it eventually to be dismantled by in-fighting, back-biting and personality clashes.

      Importantlty, social media seems able to build movements but not to sustain them.

      Thanks again for commenting.

  4. John Shewell November 6, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    Mike – as ever another very interesting and thought-provoking post. I also need to make it clear that my response is not interested in the political dimension, but like you, someone who is a “communications purist” who shares a keen interest in all things related to social behaviour and the role of communications.

    Your post is echoed by Sonia Verma of The Globe and Mail who argues that Republicans – and most notably the Tea Party – learnt from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in terms of harnessing the power of social media.

    Furthermore, Courtney Spradlin of reported back in January this year that Tea Party members were actively encouraged to use social media. So there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Obama paved the way for a new form of political campaigning. But my interest lies in the power of social media and its ability to spread messages far and wide with the single purpose of uniting people around a single narrative.

    One of the key aspects of social media is its ability to create communities of interest – this binds disparate communities. As Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine recently pointed out – the web is dead.

    He is effectively saying that the notion of open and closed online system is becoming more powerful in the new world of social web (actually he argues that the closed system is probably edging ahead).

    Social media applications like Twitter and Facebook are ‘closed systems’ in that they bind together communities of shared interests and connect them over geographic territories both local and global. It’s a bit like living in an online gated community where you can spread and reinforce your shared world views. The difference is that social media can encourage people to act because of the feeling of belonging and sense of identity within this space.

    During the mid-term elections I think the Tea Party were able to harness a very simple narrative – anti-big state – a powerful rallying cry for most Americans. While this narrative may have been handed to the American Right by a challenging set of circumstances inherited by the Obama administration, social media was the “connector” that enabled the electorate – no matter how disparate – to coalesce around this anti big state narrative. Thus creating a community with a shared agenda and purpose – anti big state; and their logic being “Obama likes big state therefore we must also be anti Obama”. Simple yet effective (a form of reductive reasoning).

    This narrative gained traction for a number of reasons – too long to go in to now – but social media helped unite the American right and spread the message in a more coherent manner. I call this “the snowball effect” ie find a nice piece of snow and a decent slope then let it roll…eventually it will gather pace and grow. Now the snowball effect works powerfully within closed systems because you are encouraging people to connect with like-minded people and bring them together.

    To illustrate the my snowball effect theory – take for example the alternative narrative that Obama failed to get across, which is that the US economy is showing small signs of recovery. He failed because the Republicans and Tea Party had already found the slope and a decent pile of snow, and started to let it roll. Obama was too late in getting his up and running. Social media is more like the slope in that it helps the snowball (narrative) to grow.

    [NB: I added links to some of my references but these may not show up – so email me if you want the articles]


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  2. Mid-Term Elections 2010: Everyone is on Facebook So Stop Phoning - November 10, 2010

    […] the old fashioned way…with a microphone. However, hold the presses, it was the Tea Party who invented itself using social channels; even more to the point, the Tea Party used social media to engage a […]

  3. Civics, Popular Media & Participatory Culture» Blog Archive » The Tea Party movement - November 30, 2010

    […] While it has formed itself out of many different and distinct clusters from across the country, the movement is generally understood as favouring relatively leaderless, non-hierarchical and decentralized structures and processes of organization and communication. For example, as the National Journal has reported, a popular management book that is widely read by organizers within the Tea Party movement is The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom (2006) which describes and contrasts the advantages and drawbacks of two ideal type models of organizations – the centralized, tightly controlled and hierarchical spider model and the dispersed, loosely networked and egalitarian starfish model. Many Tea Party members would consider their movement to be more like a starfish while more traditional political party structures are thought to to be more spider-like.  The starfish model however would not have been so successful were it not for the crucial role played by new media platforms, and especially Web 2.0 social media – Tea Party organizations have prominently encouraged social media training for its supporters. […]

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