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That was @davidaxelrod’s most recent update on Twitter. Just checking in with the world at 10 on a Sunday morning. You know, he likes good reporting, and the 60 Minutes piece was intriguing. That’s all. @davidaxelrod is a person named “David Axelrod,” tweeting for himself, right? There he is on Jan. 16, leaning on “dude,” that elegant, casual signifier of both fraternity and distance.
“@EricFehrn Dude, none of my business, but shouldn’t you be in debate prep instead of trying to explain yourself to me?”
Eric Fehrn is a campaign adviser to Mitt Romney, the same guy who made the Etch-A-Sketch gaffe. @davidaxelrod is fun. He stretches his legs on Twitter. Relaxes sometimes, and talks about the Chicago Bulls. Are we, then, really getting a sense of the man? We are not.
When malicious software infects your computer, it will often add your computer to what is called a “botnet,” a cluster of tens of thousands of personal computers linked to a single command and control server, which is in turn looking for instructions. In some cases, it’s a Twitter feed, managed by a human botmaster, who masks a few targeted command and control messages behind days’ worth of innocuous remarks.
Look back to @davidaxelrod. It looks human. There, see: a tiny picture of David Axelrod and his mustache. But nothing on that feed is human—that is, nothing is unplanned or spontaneous or open or trusting or incautious or any of the things we like about the real people we know, the things that endear them to us. @davidaxelrod signals a command and control server, and it is run by a botmaster named “David Axelrod.”
“Four minutes left in first. Every Bull starter has scored. For Miami, just Wade and James. Tie game.”
Just Dave bein’ Dave, dude.
You know, Dave’s a Democrat. He likes documentaries. Whatever. Go Bulls!
“This Etch-a-Sketch thing just won’t die. Funny thing is, all this time, I figured the game of choice over there in Mitt-land was Monopoly!”
Attack, bots, attack! Operation Doodle Mitt continues!
There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s what campaigns do. But David Axelrod’s Twitter feed is honest and human only in the same way Karl Rove’s Wall Street Journal column is. The value of propaganda increases with its ability to disguise itself as something disinterested. The observations of a political operator who’s seen everything—a person named “Karl Rove”—carry targeted messages designed to blunt President Obama’s achievements. They have weight precisely because they’re not just press releases from American Crossroads, Rove’s political action committee.
Last week @davidaxelrod took Rove to task for doctoring a quote in his column. The Wall Street Journal fixed the quote and added a correction, because the Journal values accuracy. But both Karl Rove, columnist, and @davidaxelrod, Bulls fan, are playing the same game. When @davidaxelrod seems honestly surprised that people are still talking about the Etch-A-Sketch gaffe, David Axelrod is instructing all of his followers—more precisely, the president’s followers—to keep talking about the Etch-A-Sketch gaffe.
This ability to coordinate without “coordinating” will only become more important as political action committees become engorged with money that needs to be spent. But a politician on Twitter isn’t any different than a celebrity on Letterman; both present the appearance of human spontaneity in the interest of selling something—a candidate, or a movie. We cannot get to David Axelrod’s id through @davidaxelrod. If you follow @someone, and if you’ve seen that someone on television, you are not getting to know him. You are reading a press release.