What Is A “Truth Team” And How Does It Work?

by on Jul.12, 2012, under general

The following image has been popping up in my News Feed:

The image was published by the “Obama Truth Team”, a Facebook page operated by the Obama for America campaign. It has been shared over 5,500 times in under an hour.

I am a progressive. I have no particular affection or sympathy for Mitt Romney. But there are a few things about this image that make me feel kind of uncomfortable.

There is something unsettlingly Orwellian to me about a political organization – never mind a Presidential campaign – referring to itself as a purveyor of “truth.” Sure, all truths are contested and constructed, but some more than others, especially in certain contexts. Point number 3 refers to the “truth” that Romney owned a “questionable” shell corporation. Who is doing the questioning here and why?

Forget, for a moment, the other problematic assertions in here (Point 4 is just “Kerry seems French!” inverted). We have a narrative, embedded in an image, which claims as truth a questionable-ness.

Even stranger, to me at least, is the page’s own description:

The Truth Team is a grassroots network of people dedicated to debunking the GOP’s myths and getting out the facts about President Obama’s record. This page is run by Obama for America, President Obama’s 2012 campaign.

(emphasis mine)

A grassroots network is, by definition, not run by a national campaign. It could be another type of network, a network which emanates from a central hub and functions to disseminate messages, like a nerve system.

Most interesting, though, is the whole dynamic of this operation.

To me, a “Truth Team” conjures up memories of “street teams” from the late 1990s and early 2000s: fans of bands, tapped to serve as foot soldiers in publicity campaigns. And I think the Truth Team is running on the same kind of mojo. It’s just a lot of fans, taking these images from the campaign and then retransmitting them as a mindless transaction, a sort of thoughtless, head-nodding “yes-and” post and repost and repost as a message mushrooms through a medium.

I want to be clear that I’m not accusing Obama supporters of being mindless or duped or anything (certainly not any more so than any other blind partisan). I just think there is something very interesting going on in this space.

For example, I don’t even know what to call this image. A chart? An infographic? You could call it a meme, but that’s not really what it is, that’s what it does. What is this thing and how does it work? Why is it so amenable to being shared and spread?

I read an interview a few weeks ago with Jim Messina about his long preparation for the reelection campaign, which entailed talking with many technologists about how best to shift their messaging. As I recall, Steve Jobs told him that he needed to rethink their social media campaign entirely, pointing out that the iPhone and Facebook were barely babies when Obama began running for President.

I wonder if this sort of “Truth Team” doublespeak + nameless image wonder isn’t part of the product of that rethinking. Just from looking at my own news feed (and the numbers attached to the image) it seems to be spreading fairly widely and wildly. There’s some combination of framing + presentation + timing that is working really well for the Obama campaign here and I’d love to get inside it.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. yougivemelefebvre

    First off, I don’t think this is very different in tone or content from standard direct mail pieces delivered to likely voters at the state and local levels (for generations now).

    Second, I don’t think there’s anything “Orwellian” about it. Politics has always been about truth claims. A truth claim subject to challenge or opposition is quite different from an obvious or veiled and dissonant contradiction.

    There’s nothing particularly insidious here. And I don’t think there’s anything particularly novel beyond the adaptation of direct mail tactics to social media on behalf of a nominally progressive politician. The media apparatus of the political right in this country has been much more effective at this sort of communication. It’s surprising to see the moderate left or dead center start to play the same kind of ball, as they’ve largely ceded that field without any sort of fight.

    Certainly there are a lot of weasel words in this list, but without weasel words, there would be no political rhetoric in these United States.

  2. chris

    1) I think you’re right that it’s basically a solid direct mail piece, although it does seem a bit smaller and I don’t know what to call it on the Internet.

    2) Orwellian is probably the wrong word (and certainly an overused one). And obviously this sort of stuff isn’t “new.” It just struck me, perhaps because it was a Democrat fighting back not entirely cleanly.

    The thing that I think is interesting / novel *is* this adaptation of direct mail tactics to the web in this way, because I don’t think it has happened before at the Presidential level (almost necessarily, because the social web didn’t exist this way in 2008 or before). I know Upworthy has been trying to reverse-engineer how to make political spreadables, and this seems to be drawing on those lessons.

  3. yougivemelefebvre

    I think you’re right that this is a new level of integration of direct mail tactics into presidential campaign rhetoric, at least for a Democratic candidate.

    Do you find this sort of thing unseemly? Or do you think it’s a fairly natural and reasonable adaptation?

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