I feel I have to temper the hype over how the Internet has changed elections. There's no doubt that the Internet provides enormous potential, and that people have been using it in burgeoning numbers over the past four years to search for information, share ideas with friends, and form online coalitions. But several key observations show that the tipping point hasn't arrived.
Fund-raising proves the primacy of the mainstream media
No one denies that Obama's victory was driven by his astonishing ability to raise money (final tally: $650 million from 3 million donors, according to a Bloomberg story this morning). There's nothing wrong with Noah Gift's tribute to the Internet, just published on the same site where I'm typing out this blog. But let's be honest: much of Obama's famed online campaign--the social networking, the viral messaging, the constant emailing--was directed toward raising that money.
And it's TV and radio that create the need for most of that money. Lots of us have built grassroots campaigns for various causes over the Internet, and we know we can do it practically cost-free. Certainly, fielding a team on the field in a fifty-state strategy takes money. But it's really those thirty-second ads (or in Obama's case, thirty-minute ads) on the incredibly expensive TV and radio stations that eat up the bucks.
And this is still the basis for running a campaign. Candidates realize that most people don't spend hours online (or in print media) researching issues and checking candidate histories. They base their decisions on wretchedly low-pitched TV and radio messages containing virtually no trustworthy information. When it comes to elections, mainstream media rules--not the Internet.
Viral videos also prove the primacy of the mainstream media
Much has also been made in recent elections of the role of YouTube--a shorthand for the success by networks of determined individuals in raising items buried by the mainstream media to a newsworthy level. It looks like--at least when an embarrassing event such as George Allen's macaca moment happens to get entangled with a sensitive issue--grassroots action can really shift the discourse.
But once again, these shifts in discourse don't really make a difference until the mainstream media pick them up. In other words, the sequence goes like this:
- Loosely-formed networks of individuals on the Internet (or small publications on the fringe of the political debate, which can be print media or radio) spread a message among hard-core followers.
- The buzz reaches a point where mainstream publications and broadcasters, who had originally ignored the incident, pick it up.
- A tipping point is reached where the incident becomes part of the acceptable issues for widespread discussion.
I understand that causality can't be established definitively in these cases. Certainly, if online debate is fierce enough, it's natural for the media to mention it. You could argue that grassroots online debate would sway an election even if the mainstream media continued its blackout. But I am more apt to argue that the Internet debates in themselves have affected an insignificant number of voters, and that the participation of the mainstream media still crowds out the wisdom of the crowd.
Finally, elections themselves have no Internet component
As just a final tidbit for thought, I have to point out that November 4 (along with early voting) was a concrete, feet-on-the-ground event. It consisted of hundreds of millions trudging through the rain or the early dawn hours to a polling place.
And of course, we're relieved that it is, because given current technology, any attempt to conduct an election over the Internet would be a nightmare. The use of the Internet for absentee voting by soldiers overseas received a lot of criticism. We're nowhere near ready for it.
As a sly side note, activists who fear Diebold-driven fraud in electronic voting machines would be surprised by one glitch in Knox County, Ohio.
I'm just using the obvious physicality of voting to underline the point of this blog: elections have not been fundamentally changed by the Internet. We may or may not find a reliable way to use the Internet for polling. We should certainly use it to relieve the pressures of fund-raising that distort are entire political system, and to exchange information. But 2008 is still the era of mainstream media.