2008, the year the web changed politics

2008 will go down as the year that the Web changed politics forever.

The White House campaign of Barack Obama has ensured that things will never be the same again, according to no less of an authority than Joe Trippi, the Democratic consultant credited with first using the web as a political tool.

Trippi, who served as campaign manager for Democratic candidate Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race, compared the use of the internet by Obama’s new media team to the early days of flight and the first landing on the moon.

“From sort of the Wright Brothers days of 2004 suddenly the whole thing came together and Apollo 11 is happening and you’re seeing the Obama campaign launch a guy and he lands safely in the White House,” said Trippi.

“You had all these new tools,” he told a recent web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. “Things totally sea-changed from just 2004 to 2008. That made this the breakthrough year.”

New media star Ariana Huffington, the Greek-born founder of the fast-rising website the Huffington Post, agreed, in her typical brook-no-argument style.

“Were it not for the internet, Barack Obama would not be president,” she told the same conference.

Micah Sifry, co-founder of Techpresident.com, a blog devoted to politics and the internet, said the Obama campaign ushered in the “age of mass participation politics”.

Obama’s flashy website and his use of email, YouTube, social networks like MySpace and Facebook, micro-blogging service Twitter and other web tools for fund-raising, organising and communications has already had a ripple effect beyond US shores.

The website of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party candidate in Israel’s February elections, has unashamedly copied that of Obama’s, from its use of social networks down to the choice of colours and fonts.

Trippi said new technology was not only having an impact on politics in developed nations.
He recounted a trip he made to Nigeria, where the most high-tech tool available was the cellphone.

“We were text messaging that you hold the ‘torch of democracy’ in your hand,” he said. “Use it to pass the torch to other Nigerians, let them know.

“It was amazing how engaged people got using the technology there, where even the poorest village has one cellphone and they share it,” he said.

The stars of the ground-breaking Obama new media team have generally remained in the background but they made a rare appearance this month at a panel discussion in New York on the theme Rebooting Politics 2.0.

Joe Rospars, new media director for the Obama campaign, online chief Scott Goodstein and Sam Graham-Felsen, director of blogging, recounted how when they began before the Democratic primaries they had just one smartphone between the three of them, an Apple iPhone.

Rospars said that from the start, “new media was integrated very tightly with our field operation, our fund-raising, our communications operation.

“This wasn’t just a campaign, this was a movement in which we were trying to organise people,” said Graham-Felsen.

The opportunities offered by the web made organisation possible in ways never seen before and have guaranteed that the Internet will be an integral component of future political campaigns, both in the United States and abroad.

Goodstein, however, said some things never change.

“Campaigns are always about time, resources and money,” he said. “We used the tools in a very efficient way and we combined them with field [operations], and with organising and with fundraising.”

“Organising is the essence of democracy, working with other people towards a common goal,” said Graham-Felsen.

Rospars agreed that organisation was key and that the internet provided previously unknown political opportunities, but said the difference between victory and defeat also came down to something else.

“At the end of the day if you don’t have a good message,” he said, “then you’re going to have trouble recruiting volunteers to help you and people aren’t going to turn out.” - AFP

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