2004 : The Year the Internet Changes Politics

The recent rise of social software, weblogs, flashmobs, and online political campaigning may represent new opportunities for the technology-aware politician.

Already, Governor Howard Dean, a democratic candidate in the 2004 presidential campaign is showing that good understanding of those new technologies can help increase the visibility of a candidate in an otherwise difficult field. At the current time, his site lists the fact that 255,173 people have signed up for his list. While the number may be small in terms of establishing a win in the long run, it is an interesting statistic. Witness, for example, the growth of social software networks like Ryze and Friendster, which both have over a million people with limited marketing being done.

For example, my Friendster page tells me that, through only 11 people, I am connected to over 100 thousand people. Let’s assume that only one percent of those people are actually interested in chatting with me and I am still dealing with a thousand people. Accounting for overlaps, Dean could turn his base of hardcore supporters into a group that needs to convince about 52 million people in order to win the next election. In terms of doing so, each of his supporters would need to convince 200 people (or less than one every other day until the next election) in order to ensure a win in the next election. This is a fairly major disruptive force in the long run.

I would venture to say that 2004 could finally become the year the Internet actually has an impact on presidential politics. Here are some areas where the Internet will have impact:

Financing

: In a semi-tongue in cheek challenge, Dean raised half a million dollars online in only a few days. This is hardly insignificant in that, up until recently, Dean was considered an also-ran who could not possibly get the nomination from the democratic field. His use of the online space for financing has allowed him to bypass the traditional channels of fundraising and take his case directly to his constituents, asking them to act and getting good results at it. I suspect that, as the campaign continues, all candidates are going to start paying more attention to this end of things as smaller constituent, in large numbers, can create large pools of cash.

Word of Mouse

: This is another area in which someone in the Dean campaign has a good understanding. While the mainstream was ignoring his campaign, something was happening in the weblog world. Dean somehow managed to capture the attention of webloggers and get himself hyped up in that fashion. This is another area worth keeping an eye on in terms of how it will shape the debate over the next few months. As Trent Lott probably knows by now, weblogs are a powerful voice that can slowly change the national dialogue. Considering Dean’s early lead in that space, there are good potential for a lot of this campaign being waged online.

I suspect that some of the smearing that usually accompanies presidential campaign will start moving to the online world within the next few months, with rumors and innuendos being circulated online as well as in the traditional media. However, this is going to be an interesting challenge as such rumors are usually tightly analyzed in the blogosphere. The question here is whether one can actually smear a candidate in the blogosphere without suffering some repercussions if the allegations are false (or even if they are correct, as the attempted smear may be worse than the actual act). Considering the fact that the blogosphere tends to be more leftist than the rest of the electorate (although there are now more right-wing weblogs cropping up), allegations against left-wing candidates will be dissected and countered.

Activism

: The next question, and really the only one important in a presidential election, is whether people in the blogosphere will actually go out and vote. While there is considerable discussion in the online world, there is little data about the correlation between online participation in political discussion and actual voting patterns. Considering the democratic debacle in the 2002 election, one might even be tempted to assume that the blogosphere is merely noise and that bloggers do not rally to the voting booths. If that is the case, the blogosphere could turn out to be creating a distortion effect that will have to be analyzed by pollsters in the future as it might affect polls in a negative fashion, making tracking polls almost irrelevant prior to election day. On the other hand, if bloggers turn to the voting booths in drove, pollsters will have to figure out how to break into that world and sustain a relationship with this new consistency.

The challenge for politicians in engaging the blogosphere is that they would have to enter into more of a conversation with their constituents. This will be an interesting challenge in and off itself as the blogosphere is not united by any underlying ideology, but by the use of a basic set of software tools. Establishing one’s own blog, as the Dean campaign did, may work well in starting that debate. But establishing the blog is only the first step. The next one (and the more difficult part) is to ensure that the dialogue continues and that the constituents feedback is included in the overall shaping of the campaign. This represents a challenge and a switch from the idea of a few people (generally members of a party, either Democrats or Republican) shaping the platform, to opening up to a wider group that may not always agree with one’s policy. Listen to the online world too much and you might loose some of your largest contributors, as well as the support of your party. Listen to your party too much, and you might loose potential voters. This political tightrope is one politicians will have to navigate carefully.

Any way you look at it, though, it appears that the Internet is now getting to the point where it will affect the presidential race. With over half of all Americans now being online, it is obvious that the net will have some impact. As to whether this impact will be major or not, it is too early to tell but, at the current time, it looks like 2004 may join 1960 as a year when a new medium changes the political landscape.

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