The Perfect Storm
What destroyed Hillary Clinton's campaign? The obvious answer would be Barack Obama. But the destruction was accomplished through the agency of an Internet storm. Those who remember the rapidity with which a story produced by 60 Minutes under the baton of Dan Rather was destroyed will know just how powerful an Internet storm can be. In that instance, four documents were presented by 60 Minutes on September 8, 2004 -- less than 2 months before the scheduled Presidential election -- alleging that President Bush, who was standing for re-election had "disobeyed orders while in the Guard, and had undue influence exerted on his behalf to improve his record". It was an accusation that was potentially devastating to Bush. On September 8 a reasonable observer would have made the linear projection that Bush's re-election was doomed. But complex systems work in non-linear ways. A confluence of factors explosively combined to generate a memetic storm. Small Internet sites, each insignificant by itself, began to resonate with the word that the 60 Minutes documents were faked. A variety of technical experts, drawn by what was effectively an open-source debugging exercise, found fault after fault with the documents. Within four days not only was the 60 Minutes expose discredited but reversed upon itself. By September 10, CBS News was internally admitting doubts about the 60 Minutes story. By September 11, 2004, the network was beginning to backpedal. Eventually the documents would be shown to be fakes. The scandal would cause the removal of high CBS officials, rip up the 60 Minutes news team which prepared the show and effectively ended the career of anchor Dan Rather. It was the first public demonstration of an Internet storm.
The events that overtook Hillary Clinton during the Iowa primaries were no less dramatic and exhibited many of the same characteristics. Anyone who was watching the memetic indicators closely could see something huge was happening. The News Futures Prediction Market tracked the trades that Hillary would win the 2008 Democratic nomination. She had been favored for months. Her stock actually rose throughout late 2007. And then, all of sudden the bottom fell out. Here's the chart of Hillary's prospects, which fell from 60 to 34% in a few short days.
The graph below presents a closer look at the critical days showing the sudden and devastating impact of negative information. Barack Obama started something which resonated and suddenly, critics were piling on. In almost exactly the same amount of time that it took Dan Rather to fall from national icon to laughingstock, Hillary Clinton went from hero to zero, or more literally from 60% to 34%.
© NewsFutures You can see the heavy trades at the end when the situation "tipped".
How did an apparently impregnable position collapse so quickly? How did the trend develop? How did the idea of a Clinton weakness, which was perceived by relatively few people suddenly propagate across the Internet and become the conventional wisdom? Another view of the critical Jan 2-8 period can be found on a Technorati graph as shown below. Technorati tracks the appearance of phrases in the blogosphere which can be roughly correlated with the appearance of certain ideas. The frequency with which the words "Clinton" and "loser" appeared in blog posts is shown in the graph below. From January 3 onward they peaked drastically; it shows the whisper beginning to spread. Hillary was a loser. But it is the speed with which an Internet storm can propagate which makes it so deadly. The storm can catch those who are accustomed to the statelier pace of broadcast media completely unaware. Traditional political consultants, whose plans were geared to the timing of newspaper editions, talk shows, prime time newscasts, etc can be rendered as totally useless by the relentless 24x7 pace of the Internet as the troglodytic French Army was by the Blitzkrieg. Before either Dan Rather or Hillary Clinton could even understand what was happening they were buried. And while it is true to say that the Freerepublic's anonymous "Buckhead" first spotted the 60 Minute fakes or that Barack Obama was responsible for clever campaign lines their contribution to the eventual result was more of a starting point than the process entire. They started the avalanche but they were not the avalanche itself. Could it be dodged? In the earlier era of the Old Media neither Rather nor Clinton would have been scathed at all. They were prepared to dodge the old journalistic storms. Against an Internet storm they didn't have a chance.
Internet storms are emergent events which are difficult to predict. They are like rogue waves on the ocean, arising from the complex interaction between many factors, none in themselves particularly threatening. Yet combined they can suddenly throw up a devastating phenomenon, able to sweep all before it. About all people can do to gain a semblance of influence over emergent events is to shorten their reaction times to events. In the jargon of the trade they must increase the speed of their feedback loops to have any hope of evading the avalanche or deflecting it decisively. Because there is no easy way to predict what direction emergent events will take, the prudent manager must do all he can to detect them while they are building up. A number of methodologies exist to do this. But perhaps the most simple consists of an analyst trained to look at prediction markets, aggregators and sentiment analysis software in ways designed to detect the edge of the storm.
I went over the Hillary/Internet storm problem earlier tonight with an analytics specialist and the discussion touched on some of the issues. Some of them were nearly philosophical. What should one look for? What, in fact was an "event"? But in general we concluded that simple analytical tools might make a difference in anticipating a sudden rising of the memes. Politicians might even be interested in using those tools one day. One day. But for Hillary, as for Dan Rather, it may already be too late.