Monday, April 11, 2016

Manipulating Digital Spaces in House of Cards S.4

In Jennifer Pybus’s article, “Accumulating Affect: Social Networks and Their Archives of Feelings,” the role of social media in society is questioned.  Pybus divides those who are actively engaged in social media into two camps.  The first being digital natives, or those who see “new technologies…as the primary mediators of human-to-human connections” (235).  These are the younger users who have only ever experienced a world in which digital media exists.  For these users, posting content is a necessary means by which to communicate with peers.  In this group, those who do not actively participate are at risk of social isolation.  The secondary group, or digital immigrants, are those people who have slowly moved into the digital realm.  This group’s demographic is made up of older users who are more concerned about the visibility of their personal information than the digital natives.  In order to remain relevant, digital natives must remain visible and current within their network of friends and continually circulate user generated content. This system creates a culture of disclosure “predicated on a distinct set of beliefs, norms, and affective practices that legitimate the constant uploading of personal materials” (236).  Our relationship with digital media and the data that we produce has caused a fundamental shift in the ways we express ourselves socially and have had a significant impact on the ways in which advertisers market themselves to us.  This shift has trickled further on into American politics and has affected how politicians reach out to different voting populations, a shift that has been featured in Netflix hit series, House of Cards.
The most recent season of House of Cards, pits Frank Underwood against Will Conway, a young republican who has perfected the art of self-marketing through the use of webcam broadcasts, Instagram, search engine manipulation, and eventually, public access to his personal phone.  Although his age would put him in the category of digital immigrant, his political campaign fits more in line with the digital natives, or those who are younger and therefore live lives that incorporate digital media to a further extent.  Pybus says of the digital natives, “this younger demographic is not as concerned about the visibility of their personal information.  Instead, they are more apprehensive about their ability to control what they have chosen to circulate online” (235).  Conway expresses this by making his personal life available for those who are interested in watching.  He posts video blogs of himself and his family constantly, and when rumors begin to circulate about him, he addresses the rumors directly to the public through the use of personal videos.  Conway relies heavily on his media presence because he knows that voters respond well to it and that they find him to be more honest and open.  Of course, this is not the case, as far as backdoor politics go, Conway is incredibly skilled.  He is right up there with Frank Underwood as far as scheming and manipulation, and one could argue that Conway is manipulative on a grander scale than Underwood because Conway misrepresents himself to more people on a daily basis due to his expanded media presence.
Conway takes advantage of the general assumption made by Zhao in regards to the term ‘nonymous’.  The claim is that “people do not go to these spaces [digital media] to completely reinvent themselves but, typically, to upload more truth than fiction” (243).  Under this assumption, one would expect Conway’s constant media presence to be truthful in nature rather than manipulative; Conway’s online persona would be more in line with the truth rather than a fabrication.  Of course, viewers of the show know this to be an absolute lie, his video archive and seemingly open desire to be seen is a fabrication that allows Conway to pick and choose the points at the forefront of his political campaign.  Sunden says, “we write ourselves into being,” but I would argue that we write our personas into being like Conway manages to in House of Cards.  Conway conceptualizes his digital profile as an archive that allows him to spread disinformation.  Pybus states that conceptualizing digital profiles as an archive allows us to “determine what information will come to represent us, affect others, and subsequently affect ourselves” (243).  Conway’s tactical advantage stems from the way he controls his personal information to propagate the lie that has essentially turned into his public identity.  Although he wants people to believe that his public identity and his personal identity are one in the same, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Frank Underwood is less influential in terms of his digital archive and so he must find other means in which to manipulate voters.  Like the advertisers, Frank must find a way to mine data from the social media in order to stay ahead of his competitor Conway.  Pybus states, “users are always creating important opportunities for marketer, who intuitively understand that new economic possibilities now reside in the generating of passionate interests, as people increasingly come to express their intimacies publicly” (243).  By mining this public expression and manipulating media through the use of buzz words, Frank manages to stay ahead of Conway. 
Frank has an advantage over Conway too in terms of assessing the public sphere, he has full access to the NSA and therefore has the best monitoring capabilities in the world.  From his data he decides to attack the public utilizing “sentiment analysis” or “opinion mining.”  By staying on top of public opinion, Frank is able to navigate his public persona in a way that showcases what the voters want.  Or more specifically, it allows Frank to readjust the value placed on Claire, his wife.  Because her public persona is held in such high esteem, Frank attaches himself to her and together they become quite the adversary for Conway. 
House of Cards season 4 depicts how social media has not only changed the ways in which people relate to one another, but also the ways in which politicians can take advantage of us by creating falsified personas that people take for true representations.  Although this essay focused on House of Cards, the truth of the matter is that politicians are constantly catering their messages and online personas in a way that is meant to manipulate.  From hashtag campaigns, public photo ops that emphasize our candidate’s personable qualities, to twitter messages, candidates are now fully utilizing everything social media has to offer.


  1. For a few years, as my sons and my students have matured, I have been amused by the simplification of the terms "digital natives" and "digital immigrants." The digital natives are terrible searchers; they know how to use the tools to stay connected, as you described, but they are not concerned with learning the full possibility or functionality of the terms. I have repeatedly explained to my students that Twitter was created to provide essentially a stream of headlines or tidbits that the reader would find interesting and then go to a larger source to research; Twitter was not designed to be a medium for teens to talk with their friends rather than using text messages that parents could read. Many of my high school students still don't believe me.

    And then there's Pybus's observation that digital natives rely on social media for contact with peers and fear social isolation, but social media has given these digital natives a false sense of security--"I only know him/her on fb; we've never met in person"--and a false sense of community and friendship--who really has 713 or 585 friends? (my sons who both had fewer than 200 classmates in their high school graduating classes).

    Pybus was accurate that the digital natives are unconcerned about their visibility; I think it goes back to their belief that social media is somehow safer because it's not real life. I don't believe that digital natives have the maturity to handle their online lives. and I don't believe many of them would recognize that Conway or any other person could or would craft a persona because so many of them are not crafting or editing or revising what they are posting.

    1. It's interesting that you mention that digital natives have a false sense of community through Facebook. I know several younger "digital natives" that very much feel that they have a solid sense of community through online platforms, which I'm sure you see in your classroom as well. While Facebook may not be the greatest example of people coming together to create a sense of community, through other platforms like online gaming, themed chat rooms, and other topic-focused sites, some do gain strong friendships with people they talk to every day and possibly even meet in person (given they are conscious enough to know whether or not this is a safe decision). These relationships that originate online certainly don't feel false to those engaged in the community. Digital natives and digital immigrants seem to have very different purposes for using certain social media platforms.

  2. I was going to create a post about how politicians are using social media! You beat me to it. It has been extremely interesting, particularly with the upcoming election, to see how politicians are using social media to create, as you mention, perhaps not themselves but a persona online. Great connection to this show though. It seems to me that social media being used in this election is along the same kind of lines that television worked for JFK.

  3. You mention how "advertisers market themselves to us," which reminds me of how, in the digital age of rampant social media usage, we must publically market ourselves by posting things we know will affect the most people in the ways we desire. I think many people, especially "digital natives" who are social outcasts, feel they must falsify information about themselves to appear more interesting to those who continuously bully and judge them.