Inverse mobilization and training skeptical citizens

This just came through my inbox, courtesy of Jim Messina/Obama For America:

Subject: There’s a Republican Debate tonight.

[…]

You probably weren’t planning to watch Fox News tonight. But at 8:00 p.m. Central Time, the Republicans will be holding their first Iowa debate. I’m planning to tune in — and you should, too.

The goals are made pretty clear in the next paragraphs–get people to learn/realize that “this whole group is way out of the mainstream” see if they hold the same positions they always have, or if they engage in always evil flipflop (“Will they backtrack? Will they double down? Will they hope we forget?”…and the action item/link is tied to this goal). Still, sending people to go watch a whole debate in which the emailer will likely be maligned 100% of the time is some interesting business (I’d be interested to see how this email was targeted–did this go out to Independants?? Because that’d be even more interesting). Candidates are often reluctant to utter opponents’ names for fear of upping their name recognition, let alone send an engaged audience to listen to their talking points. Moreover, it was with directions to pay attention–not to take a drink every time Tim Pawlenty is boring, or to protest all of their positions and throw things at the TV.  It gives us instructions to listen, interpret, understand, and render judgement. It tells us we can and should be skeptical citizens.

Some people have already heard a lot of my trying to make sense of what I’ve been calling skeptical citizenship over the past few months, but for those who haven’t, here it is: Digitally mediated texts (microsites are the example I’ve gone with so far) are increasingly allowing for and encouraging a version of citizenship in which people should question the validity of the political information they encounter. This follows suit. It not only tells the audience to critically examine the information they hear tonight, but to think back/look up/go to the scorecard link for earlier information that should be approached with a skeptical eye. Email me if you want to see the whole argument, but long story short: I think this is great. Implying an audience of citizens that should question and engage information, rather than consume it (and functionally teaching them to do so!) is an impressive move, and a new way for people who study this stuff to see citizenship too.

Now, don’t get me wrong. these efforts are clearly to gain support for the Obama campaign, not to altruistically bolster the public’s democratic sensibilities (they’d much rather you believe all the Republicans are wingers who can’t make up their minds than teach you to be skeptical of their own messages). And they’re likely preaching to a pretty particular subset of folks. Targeting aside, the people who will click through, turn on their TV and click the scorecard link are not so many.

Also, beyond the email, “skeptical citizens” turns into “people who can see when candidates flip flop” (see here: http://my.barackobama.com/GOP-Debate-Watch), which is disappointing.* Teaching people to recognize one particular thing is not the same as a skeptical mindset or approach to political content. Especially when that one thing, while politically advantageous, is pretty silly–contexts change, information changes, policy decisions should change too…and some of the examples of “backtracks” they cite seem a little sketchy (i.e. Hunstman on the Recovery Act). Still, this whole thing points to productive move away from “Believe me that I’m the best! Believe me that he’s the worst!” to saying, “Think critically about the information you encounter–whether it’s from a candidate or (and I’m largely pulling form my other research, here) from news, blogs, or other information sources.”

*I’m sure it’s a better campaign strategy though (and I’m sure they’ve done the message testing to figure that out).

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