David Kirkpatrick

April 16, 2009

The Internet and the 21st century electorate

Filed under: Media, Politics, Technology — Tags: , , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 8:11 pm

This is a post I crafted for NewMajority around three months ago. It never ran, and I’m actually glad since some of my observations about partisan comment sections seem to have infected Frum’s attempt to refocus the conservative political movement.

I’m blockquoting the entire piece since it’s somewhat dated today:

The World Wide Web has changed pretty much every aspect of our lives in some fashion, and politics is no exception. For all the new sources of political commentary, access to unvarnished polling data for anyone with an Internet connection and other changes in how politics is conducted, two really stand out to me – online contributions and user communities on partisan websites.

Politics lives on donations. A great portion are large chunks of money from major donors. The GOP still has this in spades. Another set of donations is small donor contributions from a wide variety of sources, a group of contributors who typically represent, hopefully, a broad base of support. Obama completely rewrote the book on small donor contributions this election cycle, very largely based on online contributions.

Here’s a blog post-mortem of mine from November:

After deftly harnessing the web during the long campaign, it’s expected the Obama administration will continue its groundbreaking political use of the internet. During the campaign Obama garnered a half a billion dollars from over 3 million donors and utilized the net for all manner of organization (you can find a blog post of mine on his campaign’s tech here.)

From the first link:

With the campaign having learned what kinds of results you get from social-networking sites, viral videos, email lists, and text-messaging, it’s not hard to imagine that this administration will operate far differently than its predecessors. Sure, it’s not clear what shape it will take: how much YouTube, how much social-networking, how many email blasts from the White House or from proxies. Getting it right will be tricky. But clearly, Obama’s recent “radio address” on YouTube is a taste of things to come. I spoke yesterday with Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of Blue State Digital, the company that set up the social networking tools for the campaign (and which supplied the numbers above). He said: “My biggest outsider claim is this: The way the campaign helped inform critical decision-makers of the value of digital assets, means [these assets] will have a significant role in the ongoing administration.”

Beyond all the technology the Obama campaign harnessed, it’s worth repeating his small contribution base – half a billion dollars from over three million donors. One thing to take away this number is it doesn’t reflect a bunch of donors maxing out their allowed contributions in one pop. These are small donors who regularly gave samll amounts — $10 here, $50 there – in response to requests from the campaign. That is a powerful donor base.

The second area where the Internet has truly changed the electorate can be found on the forums, comment sections and user communities of partisan websites. I’m sure you’ve read about the “wing nuts” on the right and the “moon bats” or “nut roots” on the left. The latter is a takeoff from Netroots, the online political activism arm of the left.

The change these groups bring is the tone from both the right and the left. Much more raw, much more virulently partisan and much more attacking. If these sites are all you read, you’d think all political discourse in the U.S. has devolved into little more than petty spats and rumor-mongering. My take is the overall electorate is pretty sane and even-headed, whether partisan, or not. The net simply gives the fringe voice a very public, and loud, so-to-speak, outlet. At one point in time these voices might occasionally get a letter to the editor published in a local newspaper, but probably not all that often and the tone would be subject to editorial control.

Internet communities, particularly unmoderated forums and message boards, give this part of the electorate an unchecked outlet that reaches anyone online who chooses to visit the site and read the messages.

It’s empowering for the everyday voter, for certain, but the signal-to-noise level is so low I can’t help but wonder if the fringe of the electorate on both sides might not be having an inordinate effect on undecided and independent voters. Either through spreading baseless rumors – and both parties have been victims of this tactic – or through just distracting voters from the message the party is promoting.

I have to admit reading these forums offers a certain voyeuristic appeal, and culturally they are a fascinating phenomena. I’m just not too sure what value they are adding to political discourse.

6 Comments »

  1. […] what I wrote last month: The second area where the Internet has truly changed the electorate can be found on the forums, […]

    Pingback by GOP purism and the incredible shrinking base « David Kirkpatrick — May 20, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

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