Part 1 of this three-part series focused on the Internet’s rise in importance on political campaigns, especially fund-raising. The second part looked at how online campaigns are building on the fund-raising theme and making the sites more interactive. This third part focuses on the increased use of social networking and online games to expand candidates’ political presence.
John Edwards’ campaign has stood out from the others for some time now for the fact that it has embraced the online game “Second Life” and set up a campaign headquarters in the game’s virtual world.
The French National Party was the first political organization to establish a presence in “Second Life,” Julie Barko Germany, deputy director for The Institute for Politics Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University, told TechNewsWorld, but “the exchange of ideas has been a part of ‘Second Life’ from the beginning.”
Both Edwards’ headquarters and that of the French National Party have been bombarded by protests since setting up, Germany said, “and there are some questions here about whether this type of reaching out is effective.”
Certainly “Second Life” is a place where people are spending a lot of time and engaging in social issues online, but what is it accomplishing for Edwards? “The Edwards team has gone out of their way to create community online,” Germany noted. “It’s a way to engage people where they are, but the jury is still out on a lot of this.”
Get the Message?
In a campaign where voters not only want to see for themselves but also to have their own say in the political process, it seems there would have to be a corresponding loss of at least some control on the part of the candidates. Gone are the days when the campaigns were solely in charge of communicating their own messages.
“Now we have read/write politics,” according to Micah Sifry, executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum. “Before, we the voters were passive consumers of what was broadcast at us, and there was not much of a feedback loop. Now we have a dynamic loop that can be amplified from below because people can connect sideways. It’s not just bottom-up but also sideways and up.”
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it may be a little of both.
Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt
“The candidates are worried,” Germany suggested. In an election cycle on which an anticipated US$12 billion will be spent by the campaigns, political parties and organizations, the stakes are nothing if not high. “It’s a huge investment,” she added. “If you let go of your message and other people come in and do something negative, there’s no telling what may happen.”
What if, just for argument’s sake, a video like “Hillary 1984” came out on Nov. 5, 2008? Some say it could swerve the trajectory of the results.
“The average person can now have much more of an impact than ever before — for better or worse,” Eric Carbone, director of Internet operations for Sen. Joe Biden’s campaign, told TechNewsWorld.
Indeed, “this is an election in which you have the potential to be the person of the year,” Germany declared.
Accentuate the Positive
On the other hand, “the Hillary video was a big story in the short term, but the long term remains to be seen,” said Carbone. Voter-generated content will undoubtedly be important in this campaign cycle, but “it doesn’t keep us up at night now. To a certain extent, the technologies out there are just facilitating something that’s gone on forever.”
Attendees at a political rally, for example, have always discussed the speeches among themselves afterwards, which in some ways is also a modification by voters of the message that was originally communicated, Carbone pointed out. “These technologies are just making it faster and easier.”
A Case in Point
The presidential campaign for Mitt Romney actually experienced an attack-by-video in early January, before Romney’s candidacy had even been announced, said Stephen Smith, the campaign’s director of online communication. Specifically, an opponent anonymously placed a YouTube video that selectively cut footage of a debate in order to make Romney look bad.
“We saw that word was spreading on the blogs and people were taking it seriously,” Smith told TechNewsWorld, “and realized that this was something requiring a rapid response in the same medium.”
Within a few hours, Romney’s campaign filmed a video in which Romney sat down and addressed the camera — and the issue — directly. “We were able to turn a negative attack into a moment of strength,” Smith said.
Lessons Learned So Far
Therein may lie the key to success for the campaigns in this unpredictable world where everyone is a media director.
“There are two big challenges for the campaigns,” Sifry said. “First, they have to think creatively about how to react to unexpected developments that will crop up. They can’t ignore these sites, even if they don’t like what goes on.
“Second, they have to accept that they have lost a degree of control over the message and the trajectory of the campaign, and figure out how to adapt and at least draw on all this new volunteer energy that seems to be out there.
“It’s an unusual moment in the United States — we’re in a kind of paradigm shift because of the changes in technology,” Sifry added.
Time Will Tell
One thing that seems certain is that politics won’t be getting any simpler. “Democracy is messy, and this will make it even messier,” Sifry contended. “But the fact is, the more voices are engaged in the process, the more eyeballs are watching, the harder it will be for politicians to get away with lies and misrepresentations.”
Ultimately, what may matter most is whether all the new types of activity online will translate into increased — or changed — action at the polls. “Voters need to prove that they’re not just having fun online, but will actually use the Net to become more informed, to participate in the political process, to put their keyboards down, leave the comfort of home and show up at the polls on election day,” Michael Bassik, vice president of Internet advertising at political consulting firm MSHC Partners, told TechNewsWorld. “If it doesn’t translate into votes, it may be great for democracy with a small ‘d’ but it won’t have a big impact on the electoral process.”
“There’s no telling which way it will go,” Germany concluded, “but I have to say I’m really looking forward to it.”