• The Popcorn Effect
    October 10,2012

    Last week, during an editorial board with Rep. Peter Welch, the congressman was asked how social media and advances in technology have affected his job. Welch pointed out that it has been great to use Facebook and other social media sites to have direct access to his constituents. But he also acknowledged that the world of instantaneous responses makes the process of legislating more reactionary and, in some ways, more polarizing.

    Commenters — armed with either a political agenda or a streak of mean-spiritedness — can pounce on any issue, eviscerate it and leave the scraps lying about while the salient points lie maimed and bleeding to death. Such reactions make it impossible for meaningful, comprehensive debate. Eager participants often find themselves being personally attacked by anonymous thugs. It is a nerve-wracking arena that proves entertaining to many but almost entirely counterproductive.

    But some public figures have figured out how to manipulate the world of instant information to their benefit. Mostly, they have learned to throw timely issues and innuendo out to distract from truths and facts. We hear about it often. It is misdirection and disinformation in new high-tech gamesmanship.

    Also last week, questions were raised by the Vermont media about an apparent sweetheart deal Gov. Peter Shumlin and some business partners got on some prime real estate in East Montpelier.

    Within hours of the news breaking, comments began appearing on the state’s various news sites condemning the media for its coverage of the deal, more than a few of them ending their concerns with the same phraseology: “I used to respect (news organization here), but now I have to question your objectivity.”

    Many of the comments also were coming to Shumlin’s defense.

    The attempts to diminish and undermine the media coverage were perplexing. It felt orchestrated.

    Then it got even more bizarre.

    While there often are issues that generate a strong public response, this one went off the charts. On some online comments where people could vote — like or dislike a story — the number of dislikes far exceeded the likes.

    Yet the word on the street was praise — not criticism — for the state’s journalists who were tracking the story. Overnight, however, the online “rating” showed the opposite — the news audience appeared outraged the media would pursue an article about a relatively nondescript land deal involving the governor.

    News directors all seemed to agree: The online response was unprecedented and bizarre.

    So dogged reporters began reaching out to some of the more vocal commenters, making every attempt to understand their outrage and vehement defense of the governor.

    They were pseudonyms. The few with reasoned, articulate reactions (some of them well-known e-pundits) owned up to their offerings. But the other, highly vocal bunch do not seem to exist.

    There is no blame to be assigned here. Just observations by journalists in highly politicized times. This popcorn effect simply demonstrates the point that Welch made in describing the function of technology today in helping to shape opinions and policy. When it gets hot, it explodes in a million little ways until it fills all the available space with virtually nothing of substance.

    In the end, I guess it really does come down to credibility and respect.

    Steven M. Pappas is editor of The Times Argus.

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