Elections 2012: How Libya Incident and Social Media Reshaped the Presidential Election

Events halfway around the world just completely reshaped this year’s presidential campaign. All in a couple of days.

Credit the viral nature of social media. Scratch that. Instead, let’s call it the voracity of social media, the ravenous spirit of consumption.

This story starts in July with a badly-made anti-Islam YouTube video. It’s not really a movie. It’s a collection of scenes that are supposed to show what the film could be. If it were ever made. So the actors portraying Arab characters, some wearing false beards, tell an ugly creation story about the Prophet Muhammad.

YouTube is America’s largest TV network. There are millions of viewing options. So hardly anyone watches this dumb film.

But then the video went viral. It got attention in Egypt and Florida. In Egypt an Islamic religious leader condemns the film and blames Coptic Christians, that country’s largest religious minority, while in Florida an anti-Islamic preacher uses this video, and the September 11 anniversary, as a day to judge Mohammad. This same preacher had promised to burn a Koran in 2011 (which also caused protests and riots) and was chastised by Gen. David Petraeus who said that very idea would endanger the lives of American troops and the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

So as a crowd gathered in Egypt, people working at the U.S. Embassy sent out a press release and a couple of tweets trying to defuse the situation. The press release was sent out before the walls of the embassy had been breached by protestors. That was followed soon after by a statement, a condemnation, by Team Romney.

At noon local time, just after 6 a.m. on the East Coast, the U.S. Embassy issues a press release that condemned "religious incitement." According to The Atlantic magazine's timeline, demonstrators started to show up about 5 p.m. local time. The embassy several statements from the press release. Just before 6 p.m. Eastern, the embassy again tweeted, messages that said, "Thank you for your thoughts and prayers." And, " Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we're the ones actually living through this." And, "Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry."

At 10:09 p.m. Eastern on September 11, the Romney campaign issued a press release that said it was outraged by the attacks. "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." The U.S. Embassy statement from Cairo was issued before the attack in Libya," the campaign's press release said.

But as ... The Washington Post’s fact-checker says:

“Even in this day and age, a tweet seems a pretty thin reed on which to hang a major policy pronouncement. In fact, the so-called reiteration makes clear that the first part of Romney’s comment—that the statement was issued after the breach—is incorrect.”

Indeed the Post found other similar statements from U.S. diplomats going back to 2006 that express similar statements. “We have looked in vain for an ‘apology’ in the Cairo statement, as well as significant differences between that statement and earlier ones,” The Post said. “One could criticize the Cairo statement for lacking a fulsome defense of freedom of speech. But that is not the same thing as an apology — especially since the embassy clearly issued the statement long before the protests began. This all started because some people got the timeline wrong. In the fog of war and protest, it often helps to get the facts straight before you act — or speak.”

That’s the basic framework of what happened. Now mix presidential politics with the verocity of social media.

Earlier this week Republicans had been critical of their candidate Romney for two reasons. First, there was a call for more specifics on taxes, the budget and how he would run the country. Then other conservatives wanted him to be tougher. Talk show host Laura Ingraham said: “If you can't beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party. Shut it down. Start new, with new people.”

What ever was said worked. Romney got aggressive. On September 11 – a day both campaigns had promised to avoid negative campaigning – Team Romney sent out a press release attacking President Obama for apologizing. A day later he continued with that same theme at a press conference held minutes before the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a statement about the deaths of an American ambassador and foreign service employees.

Another fact-checker, PolitiFact, describes the Romney statement as a continuing theme against Obama. “He has long accused Obama of apologizing for America, starting in 2010, when Romney published ‘No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,’” the story said. “Since then, he has repeatedly criticized what he has called an "apology tour" by Obama shortly after he took office. PolitiFact has examined those speeches, consulted experts on speechmaking and apologies, and rated Romney's claim Pants on Fire.”

None of this helped Romney’s case. Again, Republicans (even those who agreed with his basic message) said his timing was unpresidential. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan said Romney didn’t help himself and “looked weak today.”

What does this all mean?

A couple of things. First there are the national policy implications, protests and threats are ongoing.

“Today many Americans are asking, indeed I asked myself, 'How could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate? In a city we helped save from destruction?” Secretary Clinton asked.

That question will unfold in the months to come. Or days. Or even hours.

There are also many implications for the 2012 campaign. It’s possible that this one moment defined Romney on national security. (As I pointed out earlier this week: Polling shows that Democrats now are seen as the party with a better approach on national security.)

Social media has changed the nature of politics. A good example of the voracity of social media was when a minor Republican Party official in New Mexico said something stupid about George Armstrong Custer. The story was instant. As was the anger. And the resignation both from the party and his law firm. A few years ago that same story might have surfaced after a few months, there would have been a few letters exchanged, but it would not have become the same sort of national story. Both the outrage and the resolution were nearly instant.

So it is with the chain of events in North Africa. In the old world stories emerged slowly. People would have time to think. But that is no longer the case. The world is connected and the reactions, right or wrong, are instant.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.