House Republicans Take Vine: Social media and political discourse

The State of the Union Address and the opposing party’s official response tend to take a good deal of criticism from all points on the political spectrum for their empty rhetoric and thinly-veiled partisan finger-pointing. These talks are often remembered more for their bloopers—think Marco Rubio’s mid-speech dive for a drink of water last year—than for their content. It seems that the only sure-fire way to rally genuine excitement for the State of the Union nowadays is to make a game out of the whole affair. This indicates further that the evening does little to light a fire under the nation or to ready it to face the year of action.

Indeed, the State of the Union and its rebuttals seem to have little impact on politics or policy as a whole. While both this year’s Address and the Republican response may have lulled some viewers to sleep, other politicians have refused to give up hope for the political opportunity of the event. Among the hopeful was Representative Cathy McMorris Rogers, who not only delivered the official Republican rebuttal, but also organized an effort to publicize other House Republicans’ responses to the State of the Union. This consisted of directing Republican Representatives to rapid-response booths equipped with iPads and Vine apps to record videos, which were subsequently posted to the House Republicans’s Vine profile.

In theory, harnessing social media to make a forgettable event memorable seems like a politically astute move. If a Republican video response can refute in six seconds what took the President an hour to say, then a generation notorious for its short attention span might walk away from the State of the Union with a clearer preference for the short and snappy side of the aisle.

Unfortunately, the Vine campaign did not seem to live up to its potential. Most obviously, the response videos received very little media coverage, and did not circulate virally in the same way as this mysteriously hilarious photo of Vice President Joe Biden.

Part of the problem was that the Vine responses were difficult to find. The House Republicans’ Twitter feed posted the videos in a timely fashion, but each response was hash-tagged with only #SOTU—the standard State of the Union topic tag—as well as the official twitter account of the responding Representative. Furthermore, @HouseGOP boasts just 100,000 followers; this number pales in comparison to @WhiteHouse’s 4.5 million. On a night where thousands of citizens live-tweet using #SOTU and respond to posts from official sources, it is no wonder that the House Republicans got lost in the crowd.

Furthermore, many of the videos posted did not take advantage of the unique characteristics of Vine as a platform. The vast majority of the responses either tried to cram too much information into six seconds, or simply made statements that would have worked equally well as tweets. For example, Representative Bill Huizenga (R-Michigan) stated, “There is a recent Grand Valley State University study that says that West Michigan’s losing a thousand jobs because of Obamacare.” While there is nothing wrong with this statement, it is ill suited to Vine. First of all, it is too long to fit comfortably into six seconds of footage. Second, it could have made a greater impact as a tweet with a link to the study. Third, and most important, having a video of the statement did not add anything to it. It did not break any ground simply by virtue of using a groundbreaking platform.

Some snappy responses from other representatives indicate that Vine may yet have potential as a platform for open discourse. Congressman James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) said in his Vine response, “if you liked the State of the Union speech, you can keep it.” This sound bite accomplished more as a video than some of the other Republican responses largely because it acted as a direct rebuttal, rather than as a comment or an aside.

The tweet-length video platform offers an opportunity for the speaker to respond directly to the original speech because it equalizes originator and interlocutor in a way that Twitter comments or full-speech responses cannot. A response tweet positions the author as an inherent outsider to a political conversation: he comments on it rather than engaging in it. A full speech, however, such as Congresswoman McMorris Rogers’s official response, must adhere to the same rhetorical rules as the first speech. It must match the original in references to the American Dream and opportunity.

Vine, unlike either of these platforms, offers the opportunity for rebuttal that is simultaneously equal and nontraditional. To reach this potential, however, an effective Vine campaign must truly master its format. While effective hash-tagging may appear superfluous, in a nationwide debate, it can mean the difference between two retweets and two thousand. The House Republican Vine campaign shows us that social media offers a host of opportunities to transform political discourse. It also reminds us that opportunity cannot guarantee success.

The imaged featured is from Esther Vargas’ Flickr. No alterations have been made.

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