Don't say the Internet has changed elections

By Andy Oram
November 4, 2008 | Comments: 8

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The buzz reaches a point where mainstream publications and broadcasters, who had originally ignored the incident, pick it up.
  3. 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.

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Andy, I think your 3 steps are accurate, but they only prove that the Internet HAS fundamentally changed elections. Before Internet popularity, step one was almost non-existent. For example, Sarah Palin's foibles would not have received scrutiny in time to sink McCain's campaign without the Internet as the media for step 1.

The Internet is the only major news conduit to (so far) elude the control of moneyed interests. This makes it a game changer. Without it, most of us never would have heard of Barack Obama.

the lower the education , the lower the average iq , the more media you need to get the few working braincells left to start telling them to change thinking..

We Europeans don't need that circus.
we do electronic voting for 12 years now, the whole country in a whopping 8 hours . it takes me 3 sec to press a button.

you folks have to register and stand inline.

I would just point out that the cost of flying private jets (2 of them once Senator Biden joined the campaign) is also easily as expensive if not more so than the cost of advertising in television and newspapers.

Although it might currently be a nightmare to conduct the election itself over the internet in the US, this isn't universally true. See, for example,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think there's a "half full versus half empty" aspect to the question of how much impact the Internet has had. I agree with John that it's had an impact, and the question is whether we should be disappointed that mainstream broadcast/print media are still dominant. Maybe the Internet hasn't developed enough (reliability, ease of use) to be worthy of replacing mainstream broadcast/print media. Maybe the latter will always be with us.

Traveling and keeping people on the ground definitely takes money, and I admit they're valuable in any campaign.

As for the Estonian elections, I seem to remember they weren't as secure as election experts would hope, but I can't dig up references now. At the very least, allowing people to vote remotely allows fraud because they can show other people their votes (a problem with absentee ballots too, of course). Elections present challenges and requirements that are much more stringent and hard to reconcile than just about any other process.

I have read another interesting angle on the relationship between elections and the mainstream media, which I'll post as a separate blog.

Hi, Andy.

At the risk of repeating earlier commentors: The traditional media is still a powerful force but:

a) The Internet creates stories (your "step 1" as someone pointed out).

b) The Internet changes the traditional media because what they do isn't so much copy information from the net to broadcast but rather use broadcast to call attention to "stuff on the net".

c) The Internet also changes the traditional media because politically significant content from traditional media is very often spread via the net. For example, how many people do you suppose watched SNL parodies of Palin only on the net?

d) It is hard to prove but I suspect that the net also has a lot of influence you simply can't see. For example, Pennsylvania was a tough race for Obama in part because a large subset of the population had beliefs like "he's a secret Muslim". How, other than the net, do you suppose those belief-groups formed?


Turning off the fraud-prevention software on the donation website also did wonders for his money-raising ability.

Hi Andy,

That I was able to join the campaign and call folks in swing states miles away from my home: was only possible because of the internet.

It was amazing how the internet supported the grassroots movement. Finding some like-minded people to watch the debates with? No problem, enter your zip code and there are a couple of places to choose from in your neighborhood.

Bringing folks together face to face like that is endlessly powerful and made a huge difference for the motivation on the ground.

As usual creating community is not as easily measured and therefor not counted.

All the best, Mark.

P.S. Bummer I started this comment days ago and now the conversation has probably moved on.

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