Sunday, October 24, 2010

That's Democratainment: Obama, Rumor Bombs, and Primary Definers


Published in Flow
A recent survey shows nearly 20% of Americans now believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. That’s about 56 million Americans, a number that has climbed considerably since 2008 (to say nothing of the 43% or 120 million Americans who are “unsure”).1 The bigotry of the phenomenon aside, its durability points to the use of rumor bombs (RBs) to elect and govern, and to the role of a new kind of authoritative source therein.

In 2008, FlowTV published my article on the RB, in which I analyzed issue-agendas that convergence culture produced in the 2008 presidential election, including the RB that Obama is a Muslim (RBOIAM). I argued there was an agenda-setting interplay between old and new media technologies, enabled by YouTube, Adobe Photoshop, and Facebook, among others associated with the revolution in cultural production, distribution, and reception—all of which have been associated by some with a new democratizing agency but which I insisted has economic, political rhetorical, and social constraints. 2 Since then, other RBs have exploded in American media culture with greater and lesser damage (e.g. “death panels” RB regarding Obama’s healthcare bill, and the “racist” Shirley Sherrod RB).

Now I argue not only that accounts of democratizing cultural production must confront the contingencies of distribution in a context of information warfare (exemplified by RBs); but, further, that Hall’s concept of “primary definers,” significantly criticized in media- and cultural studies of the late 80s and early 90s, returns with a new applicability in convergence culture (CC), with the caveat that primary definers/opinion leaders have changed.3 “Primary definers” refers to elite sources who define hegemonic issues and frames for journalists who repeat and alter them. The media capital they wield complicates theories of democratizing media production and distribution in the forging of widely attended issues in public spheres.