Politics and the Internet

Here’s another mixed bag, if ever there was one.

The Internet has changed the nature of our politics, in ways large and small. I’m here to examine some of them.

Our politics didn’t transform all at once, but gradually, over time. The Internet had little effect on the 2000 election, for instance–its potential for political organization had not yet been realized, although political discussion between citizens has been happening online since at least the Usenet days. When Al Gore was running for President, he participated in online chats with the public. Given his role in spreading awareness of the Internet, this should come as no surprise. But the unique nature of online communication took a while longer to have its full impact on the political system. The first inkling of how it could be used to swing elections was, perhaps, Jesse Ventura’s successful 1998 bid for the governorship of Minnesota, which was achieved almost entirely through online communications. It wasn’t until 2004, however, that the Internet was heavily utilized as a political tool at the national level.

In 2008, Barack Obama famously built his campaign on the Internet. He likely would not have won the nomination, much less the Presidency, without it. According to the New York Times:

“Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee,” said Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of The Huffington Post.

She spoke Friday about how politics and Web 2.0 intersect on a panel with Joe Trippi, a political consultant, and Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. (Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich had been invited to balance out the left-leaning panel, but declined, according to John Battelle, a chair of the conference.)

Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign -– which was run by Mr. Trippi –- was groundbreaking in its use of the Internet to raise small amounts of money from hundreds of thousands of people. But by using interactive Web 2.0 tools, Mr. Obama’s campaign changed the way politicians organize supporters, advertise to voters, defend against attacks and communicate with constituents.

Mr. Obama used the Internet to organize his supporters in a way that would have in the past required an army of volunteers and paid organizers on the ground, Mr. Trippi said.

“The tools changed between 2004 and 2008. Barack Obama won every single caucus state that matters, and he did it because of those tools, because he was able to move thousands of people to organize.”

These changes are here to stay–in fact, they are evolving cycle after cycle. Part of Mitt Romney’s failure to win the 2012 election was his inadequate Internet operation. Obama had highly competent, very committed technical staff who were deeply familiar with Internet technologies, cultures, and trends–and Romney didn’t. He was surrounded by political operatives and the technical resources at his disposal were mediocre, at best. While that isn’t the full story of his defeat, it is an important element.

Fast forward to 2016, and the Internet is behind the major political movements yet again: Bernie Sanders’ campaign has the reach it does almost solely due to the Internet, and Donald Trump has not run any kind of traditional campaign at all. Sanders’ approach is similar to Howard Dean’s in 2004, making up for limited grassroots organization with wide Internet reach. Trump, on the other hand, enjoys much of his popularity because his outrageous statements are perfect Internet fodder. Both men are the subject of endless Internet memes and joke images, albeit for different reasons. Trump is unique in that he has spent almost nothing in traditional media spaces–TV ads, radio ads, newspaper and magazine ads. Instead, he gets free attention in all of those venues, and performs most communication with his supporters via Twitter, who eat up and disseminate his every word. Contrast with early favorite Jeb Bush, who relied on traditional media strategies–Trump completely trounced him. It didn’t matter how much was spent on TV or radio ads. It’s as if those media stopped being effective altogether, at least in terms of political ads.

We can also get political news more quickly than ever. We used to have to wait for the news to come on TV, or reach the next morning’s newspapers. No longer–now, election results, poll results, and other political events can be reported instantaneously, and spread out to interested parties in the space of minutes, or hours at the most.

The Internet has revolutionized American politics in a few ways, then:

  • It has changed how political communication is performed. Instead of relying on a single, broad message, candidates can express a variety of nuanced messages to different sets of potential voters. Much of this can be done inexpensively.
  • It has changed grassroots organization. Tools now exist which allow individuals to collaborate and organize much more easily, regardless of their geographic proximity to one another.
  • Unmentioned so far but important: political donations can now be done with the push of a few buttons, and solicitations for those donations are easier to produce than ever.
  • The availability of disparate news sources means each individual can find political news and information tailored to their tastes and interests.

The final point is, to me, the most troubling. In the past, there were only a handful of news sources one could use to obtain political information. Even local newspapers tended to rely on Associated Press feeds rather than writing all their own stories (and still do, in fact). This had one major benefit: it meant that most people were exposed to and absorbed the same political information, whether they agreed with what was happening or not. That shared experience is an important basis for social cohesion. Now, with so many different news sources–left-wing, right-wing, centrist, or grab bag of nonsense–people don’t even agree on basic facts anymore. Is President Obama a Christian or a Muslim? Almost 3 in 10 Americans think he’s a Muslim. Only 39% got the right answer. This is despite that particular issue having come up many times from 2008 onward.

These fundamental disagreements over basic facts are damaging to political discourse and the political processes that follow from it. The Internet, with its low barriers for publishing and discussion, makes it easy to spread false claims. And unfortunately, many people were never taught how to distinguish factual statements from falsehoods when presented in a digital medium, where it may not be obvious what is trustworthy and what isn’t. One can find vaguely credible-sounding statements of virtually any nature on the Internet: exhaustively detailed “evidence” regarding our “fake” moon landings, for instance. Too many people have a lot of time on their hands, are able to lie convincingly, and have an online forum on which to spread their ideas.

It’s impossible to predict what the future effects of the Internet will be on American political process, though. The very contentious party primaries of 2016 may herald further disintegration of large political organizations, in which case the continued functioning of our two-party system is in doubt. Would new parties rise from the ashes, or will both parties become de facto coalitions of many smaller factions? There are credible arguments that this is what they already are, and that the new development is larger divisions within them. Either way, the old days of centralized, party machine politics are long gone, and the field is wide open for ambitious, clever candidates to disrupt the system, all with the help of the Internet.

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About the Author

James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Politics and the Internet

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