As we and others have reported, a dispute over gay marriage between former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughters Liz and Mary spilled into the public view this weekend. Beyond the actual family feud, though, it is interesting to note the manner in which this discussion became public. Liz voiced her opinions in a rather traditional way for politicians, speaking on a Sunday morning talk show. Mary, however, responded as non-politicians often do these days: on Facebook. More specifically, she “shared” a status update by her wife Heather Poe expressing displeasure with Liz’s comments. Moreover, she also added her own endorsement of Poe’s comments while sharing them (see screen shot of the post above).
The fact that Mary Cheney chose to respond on Facebook raises the question once again of how public figures’ use of social media has the potential to change the nature of political communication. Let me suggest two features worth noting.
First, Mary Cheney’s message went out to the public unfiltered. That means she (or in this case, she and Poe) chose exactly what it was they wanted to say publicly. Someone like me – upon hearing about the dispute – can simply go to the Facebook page and see what Mary Cheney wanted me to see. Liz Cheney, on the other hand, was in the more traditional circumstance of needing to respond to a comment posed by a reporter, Fox’s Chris Wallace:
Some of your conservative critics and, frankly, some of the Enzi people, say that you have flipped positions on some issues to try to attract voters that you didn’t previously hold. You now say that you oppose same sex marriage, but they point out that in 2009, you opposed a constitutional amendment — I know you say it’s a state issue — a constitutional amendment that would have banned same sex marriage and they point out that you supported the State Department offering benefits to same sex partners. They say that’s a flip.
It is possible that Liz Cheney may have decided ahead of time that she wanted to talk about gay marriage and what she wanted to say, but at the very least she could not completely control how the subject was raised, what exactly she was asked, when she was asked it, etc. Had she chosen an alternative traditional route of communication such as a press conference, she would still have had to deal with exactly how journalists chose to report what she said. Now this is not to say that many people will not read about Mary Chaney’s Facebook comments in the mass media via the filter of reporters who will selectively quote from the Facebook Page, but the fact remains that she could craft exactly what she wanted to be on that page.
However, the flip side of this equation is that social media has presented yet another way for comments by politicians to immediately become part of the public record. According to the Fox News Web site, Fox News Sunday airs at 2 p.m. on Sunday EST. Liz Cheney’s comments come about approximately 23 minutes into the interview, but that doesn’t account for commercial breaks, so let’s say they were around 27 minutes after the show started. Heather Poe’s status update is time stamped at 11:39 a.m. on Sunday. Mary Cheney shared the post – with her appended comments – at 11:46 a.m. I’m guessing that Liz Cheney and Heather Poe were either in the Western time zone or have their Facebook pages set to that time zone. (They reportedly live in Virginia, but we don’t know where they were at the time.) So let’s assume that the 11:39 a.m. post from Poe means that the post went out 39 minutes after Fox News Sunday started broadcasting. If Mary Cheney’s comments were made approximately 27 minutes into the show, that means within 15 minutes, Heather Poe had publicly responded; within approximately 20 minutes, Liz Cheney’s endorsement of Poe’s remarks were public too.
It is of course possible that Mary Cheney and Heather Poe saw this coming and had planned ahead of time to respond on Facebook whenever Liz Cheney spoke publicly about gay marriage, and maybe Poe even had a draft post all ready to go. But more likely is that Heather Poe and Mary Cheney heard Liz Cheney speak and quickly responded. Social media, however, made that response both permanent and public. Fifteen to 20 minutes is not a long time to consider the ramifications of one’s comments, and I wonder if Heather Poe and Mary Cheney had had to go through traditional routes to respond publicly to Liz Cheney if they would still have ultimately said the same thing.
Perhaps given the strength of their feelings on this issue, Heather Poe and Mary Cheney would have said exactly the same thing in a world without social media. In the pre-Facebook and Twitter world, a reporter could simply have tracked them down and asked them to respond to Liz Cheney’s comments. But I do think this phenomenon is worth watching. Social media gives politicians a remarkable new tool to communicate in an unfiltered manner directly with the public, but it also does so in a way that permits instantaneous and permanent communication, perhaps making this tool a double-edged sword. One of the questions our Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab at NYU is researching is exactly what procedures politicians use to decide what to say via social media and how they say it; when we have findings, we will be sure to share them with the readers of the Monkey Cage.