European Affairs

Can “Obama Net” Become a Tool of Presidential Rule?     Print Email
Andrew Rasiej

Andrew RasiejMuch has been said about how Barack Obama was able to create a grassroots movement of support during his successful election campaign by harnessing the internet and the new tools for political-organizing that it has created. Now that he is President, there is growing anticipation that he will expand his use of the internet to help him govern. The expectation is that he will use this new media in ways that no one has ever done before in reaching out to a broad public and mobilizing popular support for his policy objectives – and helping keep his opponents at bay throughout his presidency.

Before explaining the new technologies and what specifically Obama did with them in the campaign and then trying to extrapolate how he might use these technologies going forward, it is important first to understand how much the landscape and ecology of political media have been changed by the eruption on the scene of social networking and media platforms such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and now Twitter.

Historically, candidates for elected office in the United States have relied upon newspapers, television, radio stations and other traditional media outlets to interpret, distill and disseminate key messages to the voting public. Because all these traditional media are constrained by time and space and are highly expensive to use, messages of candidates and political parties are condensed into sound-bites. This model of communication is based on an economy of scarcity that is now losing its relevance. New technologies, the internet, and the exponentially exploding world of mobile devices have created an economy of abundance where time and space are no longer limited and anyone can distribute their thoughts to anyone else virtually for free. Think about how “craigslist” (the nationwide on-line web listing of want ads for local goods and services in every community) has supplanted so much of classified advertising in newspapers or how Wikipedia has upended the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In this paradigm shift, the abundant 21st-century media is challenging the traditional media establishment’s monopoly over the delivery of the message and the way political messaging is planned for by political candidates. That creative destruction of the old platforms goes along with the emergence of tremendous opportunities to deliver comprehensive and accurate information to the public directly. That is not just a market shift: the new technologies also involve that new public in the creation and dissemination of political messages. This “response loop” is more than just replies to messages: it introduces a new dimension to the process in generating new content and multiplying the “messengers” by potentially boundless numbers.

For example, during the election campaign, my 82-year-old father – who barely knows how to send e-mail and still doesn’t know how to send a message to multiple e-mail addresses – was forwarding videos of Obama speeches to fifty of his friends with a simple promotional message: “Watch this.” In the pre-internet era, it would have taken my dad a year or more to be in contact with these friends in the traditional way, mainly through face-to-face conversations; even then, he might not have a chance to discuss political issues in ways that enabled his opinion to influence theirs. And although he could have picked up the phone in the years before the internet, he would not have been likely to call his friends. Nor would he send printed material by mail: he is really not a political activist, and he would have felt he was imposing on his friends’ time in an uncomfortable way. But the ease with which those videos can be distributed using e-mail and YouTube have gone a long way in accelerating society’s acceptance of this type of communication. The practical effect was to make my father into a 21st-century political pamphleteer.

Traditionally, political consensus in society is formed around dining tables, water coolers in the office, or in markets and parks and other venues for face-to-face conversations. Now it is being formed on-line on massive social networking platforms – in effect, putting those political conversations and consensus-building communications on steroids.

Today a well-crafted multi-platform approach can effectively harness the power of people to participate in the process directly. To succeed in doing that, the new approach has to acknowledge and validate the role of the individual citizen to act independently of a political campaign. Voter-generated content – whether simple e-mail, blog posts or comments, video, photos or text messages – are the new tools of political organizing. The candidates and political parties who recognize this can organize support much more effectively than could ever have been done in the past.

The people who are participating on-line now represent all ages, demographics and geographic backgrounds. The challenge is not only to develop political websites that are designed to attract potential supporters, but also to devise strategies that go beyond the websites themselves and take advantage of these new participatory dynamics. Besides providing comprehensive information, political websites need to be starting points for letting supporters build their own campaigns on behalf of the issues or candidates they support.

A compelling case in point is Obama. He rode the tsunami-like wave of participatory social media and the internet like a champion surfer as he was swept into the White House, and now he promises to be the country’s first true “Tech President.” Say what you will about which political forces gave him his electoral majority, a fundamental fulcrum of his victory was the fact that he was the first national candidate for the presidency to successfully use the word “we” as opposed to the word “I.” “We” is in perfect harmony with the social nature of the internet itself. (Why have a Facebook page if no one else does?). So it is not surprising that Obama’s message resonated with the growing numbers of Americans who are technologically literate – starting with young people.

Now he faces a new challenge as he moves from campaigning to governing: can he continue to succeed with his strategy of ensuring that his message appears where people are already gathered in large numbers like Facebook, MySpace or even on iPhone calling lists? Can he resist reverting to the traditional White House mentality of the “bully pulpit” that relies on press conferences and Saturday radio addresses to communicate to the American public? Can he replace the broadcast speeches and “fire-side chats” – a model surviving from the 1930s – with the opportunities that exist with these new forms of outreach and feedback for an internet-driven engagement with the public?

So far, there have been some promising experiments such as the way the Obama team used its “transition” website (an interim platform between his campaign’s end and his inauguration) to involve the public in submitting questions and ideas to a site where they could be viewed and then voted on by people as to which they deemed most important. Obama himself is talking in expansive ways about involving citizens more actively in making sure government spends money wisely: specifically, he has pledged to promote transparency and efficacy in administering this administration’s gigantic stimulus package by sharing all the data about its contents with the public via on-line communication and updates.

Clearly, it is one thing to get 13 million people on the e-mail list and five million people on the text message list of your campaign and motivate them to pull the lever for you on Election Day. It is quite another thing to get them all to agree on how to proceed with provisions for health-care reform, how to fight terrorism or how to create a “green” economy. No President has ever had to figure out how to thrive in a participatory democracy on a scale as vast as the internet promises.

In fact, democracies everywhere are going to have to recalibrate to remain relevant in the face of vast new networks enabled by the new social media platforms – which are essentially free of charge and which continue to evolve and grow.

It is a message that is not at all comprehended in Europe yet. (European politicians are flocking to the U.S. to try and learn about what is happening in this sphere with the American electorate.) This phenomenon – the e-candidacy and perhaps the e-government (as a political arm, not an administrative tool for paying parking tickets) – is radically new for European political culture where parties identified with specific policy positions are the norm, and coalition governments are formed through compromise in exchange for power-sharing.

European party officials should be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that the internet’s role in Obama’s success was due to America’s political system of focusing on individual candidates. The internet and mobile technologies will allow people to organize themselves around issues they care about faster than parties can be formed to serve them. In effect, they may form “virtual parties” that will challenge traditional party coalitions.

Technology will also begin to empower individual candidates inside party organizations in new ways, allowing them to build networks of support without requiring the financial resources normally made available to party leaders.

In an era where everyone is connected to everyone else, the key for anyone involved in politics, regardless of which democratic system they operate in, will be to recognize that what you don’t do yourself will be done to you.

Andrew Rasiej is the founder of Personal Democracy Forum and www.TechPresident.com. His website is www.personaldemocracy.com and he can be reached at Andrew@personaldemocracy.com.
 
 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.