the Internet and politics: analyzing the 2008 US election

A group of McCain and Obama campaigners, academics, activists, bloggers and journalists have gathered for two days at Harvard at a conference organized by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society examining the role that the Internet has played in the the 2008 US election. Parts of the conversation were under Chatam house rule, nevertheless here are some highlights of the lively discussions that have taken place.  Some preliminary outputs of the meeting can be found here in essay format and other Berkman colleagues have blogged about the event here and at the Internet and Democracy blog.

The first day of the discussion focused very much on the role played by the Internet in the campaign. Did Obama win thanks to the Internet? Did the Internet play a role in engaging people who would have not otherwise been engaged? The first question was prominent, and the message that was stressed many times over and over, especially by Obama campaigners, was that the Internet served as a wonderful tool to coordinate and link online and offline action, with the technology playing a central but complementary role to the efforts of offline grassroots organizing. I came home with the feeling that top-down strategy played the key role in getting people involved, but that success depended very much also on the bottom-up grassroots efforts and energy that Obama and his campaign people managed to mobilize and draw upon.

Marshall Ganz – who gave the keynote talk – emphasized the transformative power of grassroots organizing. Ganz made his point with a good metaphor: there is a distinction between carpenters and tools – tools could be the best, but if you don’t have a good carpenter you won’t build a house. You need people with the right skills, the right strategy, the right training in order to achieve goals and build capacity for transformative action. The Obama campaign was extraordinary in that it managed in building leadership, strategy and in engaging volunteers locally in a systematic way. Jeremy Bird, organizer for Obama for America, showed how these idea worked in practice by speaking of his experience on the field. He highlighted the interdependence between technology and field organizing – not just the Internet but for example mobile telephony – in South Carolina – a state with low Internet use the connection to people was made via text messaging.

In the afternoon breakout sessions were organized which analyzed several themes: the role Web 2.0 tools such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter played in the campaign; the role of the Internet in contributing to transparency and the analysis of different campaign strategies such as micro-targeting. Some outputs of these dicussions can be found here (essays by conference participants).

The second day dived deeply in the campaign with two panels: one from the McCain campaign and one from the Obama campaign. The two panels showed how the two campaigns had a very different approach to engaging people through technology. The McCain campaign placed lots of its resources in the traditional media (=TV), which is perhaps unsurprising given the demographics of traditional Republican supporters, who are less likely to be found online than their Democratic counterparts. The focus was on McCain and giving information about the candidate. When Palin was nominated, there was a spontaneous reaction on cyberspace which brought lots of online attention to the Republican campaign. The Obama campaign was about grassroots – bottom up processes. The panel highlighted once more the interplay between technology and grassroots organizing: the aim was to give people the tools to run the campaign on their own. Online action was always tied up to the offline. The website My.BarackObama was used as a vehicle to empower people out there, to make it easier to donate money, to help people find and connect and organize with other Obama supporters. In addition, around 1800 videos were created and uploaded on YouTube to tell the stories of all Americans involved in the election, not only to inform about Obama the candidate. As digital natives are less likely to use email than their older counterparts, Facebook was used as a tool to reach them – there was an Obama page; thousands of local groups were created around schools’ networks and even more popular was the Obama application. This had a voter registration tool embedded which allowed thousands of people to register via Facebook triggering a viral effect: your friends would see you registered and would add the application too.

One question that was often repeated throughout the conference was what are the long term effects of the campaign on the people who took part? Not only how can the Obama administration draw on the huge “stocks” of social capital created by volunteers and supporters during the campaign, but also whether this campaign has contributed to create a population of voters, who will remain highly engaged and who will trust more the political process. And finally a caveat – technological tools become more and more sophisticated, but digital divides remain. Not only the online population is heterogeneous in terms of (web) skills and preferences, but also a large proportion of the electorate is still offline. That’s why we should always be weary of simplistic sweeping conclusions on the effect of technology on politics: as this conference showed, social and cultural process are often complex and do rarely go only one way.

Relevant links:

Obama’s Classic and Jazz
What the McCain and Obama Campaign Say About the Impact of the Internet
The changing relationship between Internet and politics?
Conference live blogging by Gene Koo


A conversation with Joe Trippi and Ari Melber
A conversation with Jeremy Bird, Obama for America
A conversation with Marshall Ganz
The Q&A session with Marshall Ganz and Jeremy Bird
A conversation with Yochai Benkler and Eszter Hargittai

I will add more links as they become available.

Author: Corinna

Corinna di Gennaro (BSc LSE; MPhil, DPhil, Oxon) is a sociologist and a professional in the printing industry.

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