I originally wrote this post back in 2007. Certain links have been updated so that they point to the Internet Archive.
What do most American teenagers, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama have in common? They have profiles on MySpace, the world’s largest — and, often, most controversial — social networking site.
And what, might you ask, would I have in common with former Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX)? As it turns out, he has a blog, too. According to his site, he believes that “[blogs serve] as an important tool in breaking through the liberal MSM clutter.” The very existence of his site makes an important and profound statement. The Web is changing — and, for that matter, has already changed — American politics forever.
Moving On from Traditional Media
Over the past decade, the Web has exploded in popularity, and few would argue that it hasn’t largely changed how Americans seek out information. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, nearly 70% of our population — about 205,327,000 people — have access to the Internet. That figure is up from 19% in 1997, and 9% in 1995.
Even in the mid-nineties, it seemed inevitable that advocates and politicians alike would eventually find themselves presenting their arguments on what was described by many as a truly democratic medium. Some would argue that the real political power of the Web was first harnessed in 1998, with the advent of the now predominantly Democratic political action group and Web site MoveOn, which would ultimately enjoy a level of controversy and success like none that had come before it.
During the 2000 U.S. elections, the organization managed to raise over $2 million, with an astonishing average contribution size of $35. The organization had, with its unlikely success, played a key part in the revolution of small donor fundraising.
A “Daily” Dose of Punditry
Despite the success of left-wing progressive organizations, the conservative right would not sit idly by. Their pundits had become a dominant force in other mediums, such as talk radio and television, and they were eager to see what this new, dynamic medium had to offer them. As they would discover, the Web would bring them in touch with large, undiscovered, and even unexpectedly international audience demographics.
WorldNetDaily, which claims it is a “free press for a free people,” is also the 75th most popular Web site, according to Alexa. It includes opinion pieces from self-proclaimed far-right commentators like Ann Coulter and Chuck Norris. MoveOn and Tom DeLay’s site, which are also mentioned in this article, are the 23,288th and 508,686th most popular, respectively. DailyKos, one prominent left-wing competitor, ranks in at 3,436.
Even veteran news anchors cautiously recognize the power of the Internet. Dan Rather, who recently appeared as a panelist on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, said, “You cannot claim to be a well-informed citizen and only look at the Internet. But, I don’t think you can be a well-informed citizen anymore and not look at the Internet.”
Exploiting the Web
Dan Rather was wise to imply a sense of caution. For many users, the Web has quietly become an authoritative source for information. Politicians are keenly aware of that, and have taken a crash course in manipulating the Web to their benefit. Wikipedia, the extremely popular collaborative volunteer encyclopedia, has attracted a sizable amount of their attention.
In 2006, Wikipedia management revealed that many political articles, including a good number of political biographies, had been vandalized by partisan U.S. Congressional staffers. In the case of Republican Senator Norm Coleman, his Wikipedia entry described him as having been a “liberal” during college. The word “liberal,” interestingly, was changed to “activist.” Information about Coleman’s voting record, which coincided with President Bush’s about 98% of the time in 2003, was also stricken from the record. Part of the deleted text observed that Coleman was a self-described moderate.
Of course, this Wikipedia trickery wasn’t limited only to members of the Republican Party. It was found that the entry for Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, had also been modified. Harkin once falsely claimed to have flown combat missions in northern Vietnam, and later recanted. One paragraph in his biography, which described the incident in detail, disappeared without a trace.
Building a Social Network
Wikipedia isn’t the only popular site that political figures have found useful. MySpace, whose social networking community now has well over 67 million registered members, is also a target. Although MySpace is known for having a sizable teenage audience, the site’s impact on the adult population shouldn’t be discounted, either.
According to research conducted by comScore in late 2006, 34.8% of MySpace viewers fell within the coveted 18 to 34-year-old demographic, whose younger members are known for their remarkable political zeal. Only competing social network Facebook, with 42.6% of its visitors falling within the same demographic, made a better connection. More surprisingly, about 40.6% of MySpace’s visitors were between 35 and 54 years old.
Political figures have quickly realized that they can reach millions of potential voters on MySpace alone, and that their “friends” will put their own social connections to work for them. Barack Obama has 76,783 friends on MySpace, and each friendship translates to another set of connections. Those 76,783 friends might have hundreds of thousands — perhaps even millions — of their own connections, with many at least somewhat predisposed to Obama’s politics.
Video Killed the Political Star
The viral nature of the Web, of course, transcends MySpace. Video footage, whose popularity around the Web grew exponentially alongside sites like YouTube, has never been easier to distribute or watch.
YouTube allows users to broadcast their own video footage to millions of potential viewers, and has quickly become one of the Web’s most popular resources. And, if you were to ask Google, they’d tell you it’s worth a lot of money. After all, they paid $1.65 billion (in stock) to acquire the service in 2006. At the time, YouTube had only been online for about 21 months.
In addition to advertisers and guerrilla filmmakers, politicians have also taken their respective messages to YouTube. One video, which savagely mocks Hillary Clinton, has already gained over a million viewers. Although many presume that the video was intended to boost interest in competing Democratic candidate Barack Obama, the video could very well have been designed by somebody in a different political party, whose intention might have been to discredit the Democrats altogether. Here on the Web, it’s impossible to tell, and that anonymity is often used to create a political advantage.
If you’re an American voter, this is one place where your political orientation doesn’t matter. It’s clear that the Web will have an important role in your candidate’s strategy for the upcoming U.S. election. As you browse, keep in mind that key strategists in both of the dominant parties are using the Web to gain votes, including yours.
Lauren, who bravely allowed me to use her picture in this article. You Barack!