Will Obama give online forum?
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first politician to master the use of radio as a way to communicate directly with the nation. Three decades later, John F. Kennedy became the first candidate to exploit the power and reach of television.
And now, in 2008, Barack Obama has demonstrated the power of the Internet — not just to raise money but to mobilize an army of supporters for his presidential campaign and to communicate his message directly to them.
And the more I’m learning about what the Obama campaign did, and how it did it, the more I believe Obama’s use of new technology could have an equally profound impact on how our nation governs itself.
This is big stuff. It’s hard to believe that some of the sites that the campaign took major advantage of — Facebook and YouTube, notably — either didn’t exist or were in their infancy four years ago. The hottest Internet firm around these days might be Blue State Digital, which organized Obama’s online efforts and explains how it works on its Web site: bluestatedigital.com.
Obama was able to get his message out directly to his supporters in an unprecedented manner. He held few news conferences and generally remained aloof from the reporters who were traveling with him.
Can he adapt those same techniques when he’s sitting in the White House? Or will he ignore the press at his peril?
In the old days, it was the role of political parties to raise money, organize workers and get the message out to voters. That role was greatly reduced with the popularity of television. Political consultants replaced party bosses as the key campaign operatives, and 30-second commercials and sound bites became the primary means through which to communicate with voters.
But 2008 was different. Short commercials were still a major way candidates tried to get their messages across, but in many cases those commercials never went out over the airwaves.
Instead, they aired on the candidates’ Web sites — at no cost. And longer messages got a full hearing on the Internet, a distinct departure from how we’ve been doing our politics in recent years.
The Internet meant that you could watch what you wanted when you wanted to — it didn’t matter if you missed a candidate’s appearance when it aired on television. And you didn’t have to depend on columnists and pundits to tell you what it meant.
In fact, one of the criticisms of how the news media has covered politics in recent years — that what the candidates actually say gets short shrift is easily remedied on the Internet, where the actual speech or policy paper itself is always available.
The negative side of that, however, is that you are receiving raw information that hasn’t been verified. There’s the tendency of even the most inaccurate rumors to take on a life of their own, as they are
e-mailed from address list to address list.
One example that had the potential to hurt Obama was the false claim that he is Muslim. That report continued to fly around the Internet even after it was discredited.
But such negatives seemed to have been outmatched by the Obama campaign’s ability to transform passive supporters into active participators in his campaign. And if he could do that during a campaign, why can’t he do it as president?
He’s maintained from the beginning that change must come from the bottom up. This always sounds good, but it’s hard to implement in a society as complex as ours, with as many different interest groups as ours. But maybe, just maybe, Obama has found a way to trump interest-group politics.
This much I’m sure about: The Internet doesn’t offer incremental change in how we do politics.
James Klurfeld is a professor of journalism at Stony Brook University.