By Jean Latz Griffin
It was about 1995 and Bob Dole’s Presidential website had been spoofed. We didn’t really use spoof as a verb then. We eventually called it a parody, but at first no one in the Chicago Tribune newsroom really knew what to make of it. It looked real. It had a legit domain name, but it was saying some awful things about the candidate it was supposed to support. And the fact that it linked back to the real Dole website made it even more confusing.
A couple of calls and some sleuthing later and we had figured it out. It was one of the first instances of online campaigning – then called cyberpolitics – running headlong into the darker side of the game. A domain name very close to the one of the real Dole site had been purchased and a satirical site created, complete with fake descriptions of how Bob Dole felt about pineapple.
Oh, how far we have come.
Since the first political websites appeared in 1994, the role of the Internet in political campaigns has continually evolved.
Most experts agree that the 2008 Presidential campaign between President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain was largely won and lost due to the relative ability of the candidates to make the most effective use of online tools and connect them to the real world.
Just looking at YouTube, during the Presidential campaign Obama had six times as many videos up as did McCain and they were viewed nine times as often.
Obama’s blog posts were both more frequent and more strategic than McCain’s with Obama’s blog peaking around each debate, according to a content analysis done with the help of one of my graduate journalism classes at Roosevelt University that will be published in the 2009 Journal of Integrated Marketing Communications.
But can the new media strategies honed during the campaign carry over into governance or support for the Obama administration’s agenda?
On the governing side, some critics aren’t excited. Five new media observers chosen by NationalJournal.com and said to be from a broad political spectrum gave an average grade of “C+” to Whitehouse.gov and an average of “C” to recovery.gov.
And PolitiFact gave Obama his first “Broken Promise” mark when he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act without posting it for five days for public comment on Whitehouse.gov as he had promised in the campaign.
There appears to be more optimism on the agenda support side, even though the pace has clearly slowed since the campaign. There were 1,808 videos posted on Obama’s main YouTube channel by the end of the campaign; the number is now 1,840, barely a 2 percent increase. Viewership, however, has increased 16 percent since Election Day, to 21 million from 18 million. The most popular video is “Barack Obama on Ellen,” which was posted a year ago and has been watched nearly 7.3 million times.
The former campaign website, BarackObama.com, is now a project of the Democratic National Committee and called Organizing for America. It sends out emails at least weekly, often with embedded videos, asking for help – sometimes contributions, sometimes volunteer activities such as contacting members of Congress.
One request in February was to share a video on the economic recovery plan with friends and family. In March there was a video about the budget and a link to page with a red “Donate” button asking one to contribute “to ensure that opponents and special interests don’t succeed in blocking or weakening President Obama’s agenda.”
Obama won the vote in Congress on the economic recovery plan and the budget, but it’s too early to tell how much the online push had to do with it. Likewise, even those giving the grades admit that both recovery.gov and Whitehouse. gov are still evolving and may be much more interactive and effective than they are now. Case in point: a new White House Twitter feed started May 1.
In each case, if the campaign is any guide, it will take a combination of the new and old to achieve dominance in setting the agenda or brilliant transparency in communication government activities to the public.
Towards the end of the campaign, Andrew Keen, blogger, columnist and author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture, wrote that “just as Barack Obama is an ideological hybrid of Chicago street activism and the consensual politics of the U.S. Senate, so the outcome of the 2008 election itself has been shaped by a hybrid of traditional and new media.” In March Keen headlined one blog: “Obama needs to stay in touch with his 13m internet soldiers.”
As we move through the second 100 days of what has been called the first wired presidency, it will be important to watch how transparently communicative government will really be and how much power comes with having 13 million email addresses, 21 million YouTube views and more than 1 million Twitter followers.