“You Lie 2.0”: How disrespecting the protocol can get you thousands of new friends and a million dollars on social media sites

Was Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst “You Lie” last week during the presidential address to the joint session of Congress harmful or helpful to him? This is the question I asked in a not representative poll in my MPA class this Monday. 70% of my students said that it must have been harmful to him. And then we looked at the numbers.

In an unprecedented move, Wilson’s hired a new media strategist who went to work in the same night as his client had breached the protocol. The result: 50 new Twitter messages and a record increase in Twitter followers. Overnight, Mr. Wilson’s followers increased by 500% (from ~ 2,300 followers up to over 10,000 followers over night: see TwitterCounter).

Non of these developments comes as a surprise – although – a conservative Member of Congress is using these channels – which he hadn’t frequented as much and with a very different netiquette and traditional forms of messages: “Have a great Labor Day” – was his last message before the joint session of Congress.

Without a true apology to the American people or his fellow Members of Congress, Senator Wilson managed to create friends – or in the Web 2.0 lingo – picked up people where they are: on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. He mimicked the Campaign 2.0 success of his biggest foe, President Obama, and increased his fans on his congressional Facebook fanpage to over 11,000 fans.

In an interesting move, he is also equipped his Facebook campaign page – a standard profile page that you and I can create – to a donation channel using Google Checkout, without any substantial information about the issues. The main explanation on this page is: “Washington Democrats and their liberal allies want to divert attention away from the concerns about the massive government takeover of health care. In fact, they have made me their Number One target — already raising millions of dollars for my opponent. But I will not give up and I will not back down from our fight. We will not be muzzled. Will you please make a donation to help me fight back against these unwavering attacks? Thank you for standing with me in this fight.”

The result: More than $1.5 million dollars in donations following the weekend of his outburst. Granted – we do not know where these donations are coming from and we are not able to track them back to his Facebook campaign page or even back to his district for that matter. And – his opponent Sen. Rob Miller has made a few bucks himself during the same time frame. Both might be picking up supporters beyond their own playground.

What is interesting and a novelty in the arena of spinning the message is that new media experts are hired – who specifically focuses on targeting new media channels. The messages he is shooting out to the world are no longer about damage control – but about turning a wrong into a right: “I apologized to the President – I believe that is sufficient.”

In other contexts, misbehavior, breaching the protocol, or out-bursting inappropriately creates foes. Kanye West was shunned by his celebrity colleagues for jumping on stage at the VMA awards during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for her best video award – proclaiming that his friend Beyonce should have won the award. Serena Williams received a high fine of $10,500 dollars for insulting a line judge during the US Open finals on the same weekend. Both found themselves in the dog house — and as expected and traditionally the norm – both apologized profoundly, not only directly to the person they harmed, but also to the public.

While Wilson’ congressional website was overloaded with site hits and temporarily went down, it was reported that it was also target of a Denial of Service (DDOS) attack and a slim version without graphics is now back up.

In response to the Congress’ resolution on Tuesday, Congressman Wilson tweets: “Despite Congress’ actions today, I will not back down from speaking the truth. Please stand with me http://bit.ly/duWXu”.

Overall, what we can observe is an immense upheaval of social media tools, a medium that has become the message and a money-for-issue exchange. Social media tools are providing a payoff to catering to the fringe and are facilitating extreme polarization in Congress – and thereby giving a voice to those who were already loud – but not necessarily right. An addition to viral messages of the birthers, death panelists, and now “You lie” shouters.

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About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

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