Llama drama and dress stress: Politicians should follow lead of those like John Oliver, use Twitter to discuss current events


If you have been on Twitter the past few days, you have probably seen millions of people tweeting about llamas on the loose in Arizona and have been caught up in trying to decide what colors that infamous dress is (it’s blue and black for those still deciding).

Llamas and a dress debate ignited a Twitter firestorm. People chose sides and became a part of either #blueandblack or #whiteandgold, and constantly updated their feeds to see the fate of those wayward llamas. Celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Anna Kendrick, Kim Kardashian, Jimmy Fallon and Justin Bieber voiced their dress opinions via Twitter, and news agencies like The Buffalo News, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News immediately picked up the stories.

We got live llama updates, right up until the dramatic lasso capture. The scientific community published videos and articles about what was causing people to see different dress colors. All the while regular Twitter users just kept refreshing their feeds, dying for more information.

But there were a minority of users, including myself, that wondered why meaningless things like the dress or the llamas go viral. Why can’t Twitter go crazy over political issues, or things that actually matter?

The answer is that politics and politicians are boring.

Believe it or not, most politicians do actually have social media accounts. The problem is that they tweet and post like robots. There is nothing funny, personal or humanizing in politicians’ Twitter accounts. They tweet about their boring vote on a boring issue, with a link to a long boring article. The only time we even notice their accounts is when they are misused.

For better or worse, the way to this generation’s heart is through social media. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are where most young people get their news, entertainment and connect with friends. We want quick and easy information, and usually a laugh along with it. This is something that most, if not all politicians have yet to realize.

Political posts are normally heavily edited and framed in a way they hope will not upset anyone. They normally don’t reply to commenters, and usually don’t tweet about anything other than politics. That’s right where they lose us.

The reason the accounts of celebrities or athletes are so successful is because they are humanizing. Interacting with celebrities, reading their funny posts and the anticipation of a potential response directly to you is fun and exciting. It allows the public to connect and get to know celebrities in ways that were previously impossible. We can see that they are just like us. This is the exact opposite of the cold, calculated posts of politicians.

But all hope may not be lost.

One person who has been successful in harnessing the power of Twitter is John Oliver. On his show Last Week Tonight, Oliver has successfully reached out to the Twitter community on important issues – so much so that they go viral.

He used his show and took to Twitter to convince people to write to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to show support for net neutrality. Net neutrality would prohibit Internet service providers from throttling Internet speeds and create Internet slow and fast lanes. The following day, the FCC website had over 45,000 comments and even crashed. The FCC reported that at the end of the public comment period, more than 3.9 million comments had been posted. Even more importantly, the FCC changed its mind and adopted net neutrality rules this past Thursday.

His campaign worked.

Oliver took to Twitter again and called out big tobacco companies with his hashtag #JeffWeCan. The hashtag was the result of his bit on big tobacco companies’ exploitation of smaller countries that can’t fight legal battles to put warnings on cigarette containers. Oliver created the character “Jeff the Diseased Lung” along with the hashtag to shed light on the issue and spread word of this injustice.

His campaign took off again. Twitter users immediately took to the Internet to spread the word about Jeff and abuses committed by big tobacco. Users tweeted with the hashtag until it became trending No. 1 in the United States. As of Sunday, the video clip had 3.9 million views and counting.

The Twitter campaign worked to such an extent that Phillip Morris, the largest of the tobacco companies, responded directly to Oliver and (ironically) accused him of mischaracterizing the company.

The fact that John Oliver was able to spur so many FCC comments – to the point where the FCC changed course – and get an enormous company to issue a press release speaks to the untapped potential of Twitter.

Our generation is ready, willing and able to talk about important issues, but it takes a unique effort to get us involved. Politicians across America should take note of John Oliver and other successful Twitter accounts. Through interaction, some humor and humanization, politicians can harness the power of Twitter and get young people involved in important issues.

William Krause is a political columnist and can be reached at william.krause@ubspectrum.com