Viral politics 2008: how social media is changing the presidential debate

User (or voter)-created media provides an instantaneous and widely-consumed venue for debate, critique and fact-checking of political candidates, but Thursday’s WebbyConnect panel in Laguna Beach, Calif. was unable to reach a consensus as to whether the candidates themselves were ready to surrender their top-down spin control in favor of a truly bottom-up free market of ideas.

Old game, new tools

Andrew Rasiej, the founder and publisher of Personal Democracy Forum and Tech had a somewhat grim view of the actual dialogue. “It’s direct mail for the 21st century,” he said referring to the influential lobby “It’s not the robust participatory democracy it could be.” He said that candidates like Hillary Clinton, who recently invited users to vote for her campaign’s theme song, were really just harvesting an e-mail address list.

The famously viral “Vote Different” video that targeted Clinton with a remixed dystopian Apple ad was so popular because Web citizens found that she was saying one thing and doing another online, said Rasiej. “She claimed it was a debate, but the questions were all preselected and filtered.” Rasiej believes that Clinton’s campaign managers wanted to capitalize on the online community but “didn’t understand” that the dialog has to be free and open to gain the trust of the Internet community. Four million viewings later, Clinton’s campaign has “woken up” he said.

The panelists noted that many politicians allow finite debate and video posting in so-called “walled gardens” of their campaign websites and MySpace pages, but haven’t yet embraced open-source politics. “The politician who fails to recognize the trend does so at their own risk,” said Rasiej.

Barack Obama’s campaign (which of course had nothing to do with the Apple ad) is also backwards thinking, several panelists noted. The webmaster running the Obama MySpace site–with 160,000 supporters–asked Obama for a salary, $39,000, and was refused. “That’s 25 cents a voter and they said no,” said Raseij. “Keep in mind, campaigns often spend one dollar per email address for mailing lists.”

New game, new players

Steve Grove, head of News and Politics at YouTube, was more optimistic. His site has seen an unprecedented rise in user-created political dialog in the form of videos and “…anything that brings more people to the table is a great first step.”

“It’s a conversation, not a distribution mechanism,” said Grove. “It’s so antithetical to the way politics has been run for the past 30 years.”

Tools like Meetup and Eventful allow regular citizens to choose when and where the real-world debates happen, as well, essentially giving citizens a voice to demand the discussion come to them in person.

One audience member asked about the infamous “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” video of a student agitator getting tasered by security at a John Kerry speech. “Are we in danger of high-keyed, emotionally-driven politics in this trend, are we being desensitized to real issues?”

Raseij responded “What’s shocking about that video is that John Kerry said nothing.”


The panelists agreed that in an era of horizontally accessible media, fact checking, like that done by panelist Viveca Novak of Annenberg Fact Check, at the University of Pennsylvania, becomes increasingly crucial.

“The Internet is a blessing and a curse,” she said. “There’s great information and a great deal of disinformation,” noting that her website busted Bill Richardson for including bogus facts in his YouTube videos. “Now we are drinking from the firehose.

“There’s a low barrier to entry, but many [participants] aren’t armed to the teeth with facts, as they should be,” said Grove. “But I don’t share Andrew’s disdain for MySpace politics. This is an era of intense experimentation. Not all top-down politics is a bad thing.”

In an election with no incumbent, and a range of candidates as diverse as America has ever seen (female, African-American, Mormon, pro-choice Republican, etc.) new media throws an additional curveball into an already unstable game. The real question is whether new voters and non-voters will turn out as a result of the YouTube revolution. Online registration, mobile phone voting information and a bevy of other technologies designed to get out the vote can become “the digital equivalent of walking the precinct and knocking on doors,” said Raseij.

About Noah Barron

Hi, I used to be Robert Niles' research assistant, but I actually graduated and actually found a dead tree j-job at the Los Angeles Daily Journal, where I am general assignment/verdicts and settlements reporter.