My 11/17/08 Missoulian column
Now that the presidential transition is under way, it’s interesting to look back and consider some of the ways the Internet affected the race for the White House. After this election, I think we can be sure no one in the political world is going back to typewriters and telephones on land lines.
It’s already been said a thousand times, but this was the first presidential campaign to be radically changed by the Internet. And the result, according to the Washington Post, is: “Armed with millions of e-mail addresses and a political operation that harnessed the Internet like no campaign before it, Barack Obama will enter the White House with the opportunity to create the first truly ‘wired’ presidency.”
Some, according to Slate, “…believe that the White House Web site will transform into a social network – a kind of Facebook for citizens, a place where people can learn about and work toward passing the president’s agenda.”
And in case you haven’t seen it, Change.gov – the office of the president-elect – is up and running and already getting a half of 1 percent of worldwide internet traffic.
But what about the high- tech campaign before Nov. 4? Andrew Keen at the United Kingdom’s Independent doesn’t mince words: “Indeed, the online development of the Obama brand itself is a casebook example of how the viral internet enables the guerrilla marketing of sexy products such as handsome young Harvard educated politicians with messianic messages about redemption and change.”
As they say, all’s fair in love and war. And at this point in time, I’ll say politics can accompany love and war in that phrase. But I have to somewhat agree with Keen; what about the Internet and how did it envelope both parties – one much more than the other – in this election?
I was never interested enough in the election to venture into the social networking sites for the candidates – I kept reasonably close track of policy positions and the various rhetorical battles via “traditional media” – but social networks played a huge role. Known as “Web 2.0” – a catch-all term for the interactive, user-generated Web, which includes social networking sites like Facebook, thousands of blogs, YouTube clips, etc., – any election from now on will be very different.
Rallying your troops online is critical from this day on. The incoming president’s party is well on its way to continue the innovative use of Web 2.0, and the Republican Party is analyzing how it didn’t use it well enough, or at all.
Al Gore reiterated at the Web 2.0 Summit a few days after the election, that “what happened in the election opens up a full new range of possibilities, and now is the time to really move swiftly to use these new possibilities.” (Cnet.com) And the Web 2.0 companies themselves fully realize what happened. In another Cnet.com piece, Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s marketing director (and sister to Mark Zuckerberg, multi-billionaire CEO of Facebook) who handles the social network’s political-outreach efforts, said, “I was even joking the other day that I kind of felt like I have a bit of postpartum depression … It was such a long, drawn-out, exciting election, and now it’s just over.” But she goes on to say that she (and I presume Facebook) wants to jump into international politics and elections.
As for blogging, I’ve always laughed at Twitter and thought that the verb for microblogging – “tweeting” – was very descriptive of the meaninglessness of knowing when someone has made themselves a sandwich or walked their dog or whatever. But Twitter came into play on election night, according to The Wall Street Journal and was used to combat voter registration problems and disenfranchisement. One person in the article assesses it this way: “(Twitter) makes Jimmy Carter’s election monitoring in other countries look like something from the Stone Age.”
These days, I think every voter can and should become a poll watcher, because at the root level – beyond all the high-tech – one of the functions of a democracy is the guarantee of the individual’s right to vote.
And then there’s the money. The Obama campaign raised and spent $650 million, more money than Bush and Kerry spent in 2004 combined. Along with Web 2.0, that’s the future of elections, too; huge amounts of money, much of it raised on the Web. But there are problems. The Obama campaign has said it is too difficult to release the details of 2 million Web donations of less than $200 – including those made with prepaid and anonymous debit cards – and Slate.com has shown that it’s not. The potential for funding fraud exists, and it’s too bad the campaign won’t release such information.
Both campaigns were equally weak when it came to their own information infrastructures. They both were hacked, according to CNN, quoting a source that said the “sophisticated intrusions appeared aimed at gaining information about the evolution of policy positions in order to gain leverage in future dealings with whomever was elected.” The FBI told the Obama campaign that “you have a problem way bigger than what you understand … you have been compromised, and a serious amount of files have been loaded off your system.”
Why were they hacked? For information. Like social engineering scams, even the smallest bits of personal or business information have the potential to be exploited. Grabbing gigabytes of policy statements, strategy outlines, databases of donors and e-mails – detailing names and relationships – presents a gold mine of information that could be continually mined for political and strategic advantage for the duration of any administration. No one will venture a guess – at least publicly – about where the hackers were working from or how they got in.
And in the final stages of the election cycle, Wall Street melted down and fundamentally altered the race. I’m not an economist or a quantitative analyst, but I will trust several good articles in the New York Times that point to the lack of use of long-term market data and the willful ignoring of results. It’s a case of garbage in and garbage out, and as a result the world economy tanked.
The “human factors” were ignored in modeling the risks of investments, while Alan Greenspan fessed up that bad data was a large factor in those models. To many voters, the most important thing in an election year is the economy, and it was a factor this time around, though many will be arguing about it for years.
Now that the election cycle frenzy of political rhetoric, organizing, blogging, viral campaigns and raising money is over, let’s see what the new administration can get done. Will the same high-tech tools work? I’d check Change.gov and watch it unfold.