How social media livestreams will impact political journalism

Photo: Associated Press

Shortly after the debut of Meerkat, an app that allows users to livestream videos directly to social media, a strange band of early adopters began to assemble: politicians.

Just days after Meerkat was unveiled at SXSW, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was Meerkatting footage of a visit to Atlanta and using it to simultaneously stream a radio appearance on Fox News Radio.* Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced the jobs report via Periscope, a similar livestreaming app launched by Twitter, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich used it to stream a press conference announcing the state budget. Even newly minted presidential candidate Rand Paul has been broadcasting live video.

There’s no doubt that the ubiquity of smartphones and the the easy ability to tweet, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube have already changed the modern campaign. Pre-digital age, small flubs might have gone unnoticed, but with YouTube they become full-blown scandals. Even private events aren’t off limits, as Mitt Romney’s campaign learned after a bartender filmed the now-infamous ‘47 percent’ video at a donors-only banquet. Apps like Periscope and Meerkat, which take away the delay of packaging and uploading a clip, only up the ante.

“Every minute — literally every minute — of every day of the campaign will be available live to anyone who wants it, no matter where they are,” wrote Dan Pfeiffer, the outgoing White House communications tsar, in a ruminative post on Backchannel. Politico has already dubbed 2016 ‘the Meerkat election.’

But what’s less clear is whether these devices will prove useful to candidates—by allowing them to connect with constituents, beef up their publicity, and circumvent the press—or if this 24-7 scrutiny will create a deluge of scandals. Will this be the election of ‘47 percent videos,’ or have modern campaigns grown savvier at Mitt Romney’s expense?

“The next 47 percent is going to come out on Meerkat or something like it,” Time political reporter Zeke Miller said during an MSNBC panel last month. “It’s not going to come out two months later on video.”

It’s unlikely that exact political blunder could be recreated on Meerkat—Romney’s staff could have easily spotted the livestream and shut it down. When Ashley Codianni, senior digital producer with CNN Politics, recorded a small Chris Christie event on Periscope, his staff monitored her feed. “Their team came up to me and said, ‘We’ve just watched all of your Periscope and interviews with the audience,’” she said. “So clearly they’re paying close attention.”

Still, the apps create opportunities to catch candidates in uncomfortable positions. Gaffes have become a business for accountability groups, like Media Matters and America Rising. The latter deploys dozens of ‘trackers’ to follow and film democratic candidates. Jeff Bechdel, communications director at America Rising, said that capturing a poor remark on video has the potential to transform a “bland political event” to a media frenzy that dominates the news cycle for days.

“Twitter has been around, but with video, seeing is believing, and these folks are able to see the thing as it happens,” he said. Since America Rising was founded in 2013, the number of feeds the outlet monitors from its war room in Virginia has expanded exponentially—with each video a chance to catch a bad comment or a flip-flopping statement. “These livestreaming apps are holding people accountable,” said Bechdel. “So we think that’s a good thing.”

Yet this immediacy also creates a challenge for reporters trying to give an analytical account of a story that’s constantly in motion. When Philip Rucker, a national reporter for The Washington Post, covered Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012, the rise of Twitter multiplied the amount of information he had to parse. “It took away a barrier to finding out information, but it also made it a little more difficult as a reporter to synthesize what you’re seeing and learning into something that has value to your followers and learners,” he said.

And as smartphones get fancier, this feed will only get more frenetic, and candidates will have to adapt.

Hillary Clinton hinted at this when she announced to members of the press that she was changing her media strategy. “So here goes: no more secrecy. No more zone of privacy,” the former Secretary of State, still seeking to recover from an email privacy kerfuffle, told a group of reporters. What she didn’t mention: When your bartender can end your campaign with a cellphone video, a zone of privacy is impossible. And it’s better to be periscoping yourself then waiting for someone else to use it against you.

*Corrects where he appeared.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.