Politics and the Internet

Presidential candidates are taking their campaigns online. Who is winning the Internet primary?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next: Have you seen that political ad mocking Hillary Clinton, the take-off on the Apple computer ad in 1984? It's on YouTube, and millions of people have seen it. Here's just a few seconds from it.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): One month ago I began a conversation with all of you, and so far we haven't stopped talking, and that's really good. I intend to keep telling you exactly where...

FLATOW: There you had it, basically just re-doing that famous ad where the woman was running down the aisle and threw that sledgehammer into the image. The ad's creator, Phil de Vellis, a supporter of Barack Obama, wrote in the Huffington Post blog that there are thousands of other people who could have made this ad, and I guarantee that more ads like it by people of all political persuasions will follow.

This raises the question: Will the battle for our next president be fought primarily online, on the Internet? If so, who's winning the Internet primary so far? Here to talk about it is Andrew Rasiej, who is founder and publisher of techPresident.com and the publisher of the Personal Democracy Forum in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. ANDREW RASIEJ (Personal Democracy Forum): Nice to be here.

FLATOW: Is this is the next battleground?

Mr. RASIEJ: It's the next battleground. I don't think it's going to supplant traditional campaigning, but it's definitely a whole new front that the political campaigns have to figure out how to handle.

FLATOW: They do, and they all have their sites now, don't they, and they're on YouTube?

Mr. RASIEJ: Well, they have their sites, and they do have videos that they're putting up, and some of them are ending up on YouTube, but it's still very much a top-down political perspective. The Internet actually encourages people to be distributing and producing on their own, and it's a very uncontrolled environment, and the political operatives and the consultants aren't ready for this.

FLATOW: If you want to see the whole anti-Hillary ad, it's on our Web site at sciencefriday.com, along with links to the YouTube ads of all these other ones that are quite interesting.

Does this upset the formula about financing a campaign, where you used to have to spend a lot of money to pay very expensive advisors and public relations people to make all these ads. Now you have people volunteering for nothing to make ads.

Mr. RASIEJ: Well, I think that the political machinery is going to still pay consultants and still do a lot of television ads because that's what they know how to do. It's the campaign that learns how to incorporate voter-generated content onto its own site and through its own networks and learns how to also defend itself against attacks produced by voters that might be against a particular candidate. That particular campaign may have an advantage over others.

FLATOW: Was the last campaign, last year, was that very much influenced by the Internet?

Mr. RASIEJ: Well, there was a couple of instances where the Internet had a precipitous effect. The macaca moment for Senator George Allen, for example, which was captured on videotape, and of course a lot of people remember Michael J. Fox speaking about Parkinson's Disease, which was quite moving.

Here you have another example of not only a piece of video that might have been produced either by a professional shop or by an amateur that then gets virally distributed by people who like its message, and that's the wild card in this coming race, which is that the citizens are no longer passive receivers of content but are now actually distributors, and now producers too.

FLATOW: And perhaps with an election where we typically have a difference of one or two percentage points in the presidential election - might be swayed by one of these ads, by one of these people.

Mr. RASIEJ: It is clearly a very provocative new tool, and the political establishment, since 2004 with Howard Dean, has learned that it's very successful at raising money, but this year you're going to see it being very successful at activating people to vote and to actually do things in their communities.

FLATOW: Now, your colleague, Mike Asifrey(ph), makes a distinction between online videos versus TV ads, and he says that they accomplish different things.

Mr. RASIEJ: That's correct. Most of the campaigns so far, including Hillary's own let's-have-a-conversation video, and even Barack Obama's initial introduction, are very much TV-like. They actually - when they see a video camera, they think they're look at - you know, it's a television interview. They're being interviewed for "Meet the Press" remotely.

They don't realize that the Internet video is a much more fluid and more authentic type of media, and they don't have to be so scripted. In fact, Hillary had to defend the fact that the furniture behind her was actually her real living room and not something that she had set up.

So there are examples of other candidates who have learned that this is a different kind of medium. One of them is actually a British member of parliament by the name of David Cameron. You can see his site at webcameron.org.uk, and he is a conservative member of parliament who is very effectively basically inviting people to travel with him as he represents his constituents.

FLATOW: Talking with Andrew Rasiej this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, talking about the Internet as politics.com. Do they have different strategies, or I mean, are all these ad people from the same cloth?

Mr. RASIEJ: Well, most of the campaigns are still, as I mentioned earlier, top-down operations, but some of them have started to incorporate some interesting functionalities on their sites. Barack Obama, for example, has a MySpace-like social network that he's trying to build, and John Edwards has an invitation for people to submit video blogs on his site.

It's not really clear yet whether or not the social networks on a campaign's own site are going to be as powerful as the ones that already exist just out in the public - MySpace, for example, and Facebook, where Barack Obama has hundreds of thousands of supporters, and he's really taken off in the social-networking environment.

So here's another example of where campaigns have to learn when they should try to build it themselves or when they should just use what's already out there.

FLATOW: You know, we have a year and a half to go until this election, and that's a millennium on the Internet in terms of development.

Mr. RASIEJ: Exactly.

FLATOW: Who knows what could come up?

Mr. RASIEJ: You're going to see videos on mobile phones. You're going to see text-messaging advocacy, where you're going to get text messaging sent to a supporter. You're going to see Google mash-ups, where people are going to take voter files and they're going to be able to make Google maps so you can actually create a walking tour through your neighborhood and find Democrats registered or Republican registered, then you might go knock on their door and make sure that they get out to the polls for the primary.

You're going to see a lot of these tools, but there's really two very distinct schools in the way technology and politics collide. One school is the school that considers technology as a new tool in top-down politics. We have a message, we're going to deliver it now through this new medium, and that's pretty much what you're seeing through the political operatives, the campaigns, the political organizations, the parties themselves.

But there's another school that believes this technology offers an opportunity for a more robust and participatory democracy, more transparency. For example, there's a fantastic organization in Washington, D.C. called the sunlightfoundation.com that's using technology to expose corruption in Congress by putting massive amounts of data online for citizens to sift through it and connect the dots, go through the earmarks, see who's giving money, see who's getting the benefit and who's not.

These kinds of tools were not available before, so you're seeing a disintermediation of politics, very much the same way that the music industry saw a disintermediation when Napster came along, and even though they shut it down, the genie was out of the bottle, and digital distribution has fundamentally changed the music industry. You're going to see the same things happening in the world of politics.

FLATOW: Does that mean that the Internet-savvy people are going to be the more involved people?

Mr. RASIEJ: Well, Internet-savvy people certainly are going to be more involved, but there's a mistake also in thinking that the Internet's only going to be used to reach people who are on the Internet.

The Internet's going to be used to dictate the pulse and the pace of the campaign, and traditional media types are going to actually be spending their time following the Internet themselves and getting a lot of their information on the Internet, making judgments, which will then be reported in traditional media.

So the Internet actually is kind of like the ringmaster.

FLATOW: So it's like what happened with the anti-Hillary ad. The traditional medium reacted. That came first, and they had to react to that. They didn't start it.

Mr. RASIEJ: Well, you know, it's not so easy - you can create a great video, and it's not all of a sudden get a million people to watch it. What happened there was that the creator, Phil, before he was known, had sent it MyDD, which is a very well-known, progressive blog, and a lot of people responded to it, and it got of a lot of attention, and then it got virally distributed, and then when it got pointed to by Drudge, the mainstream media said, hey, look what's happening here.

So it's not that every single one of these videos is going to take off like that, but even if you produce one small one, and a thousand people find it provocative and it moves them to the polls, that's an effect. So it's a very interesting time to be involved in politics.

FLATOW: Well, like I say, we've got 18 months to go. We're going to have you come back and talk more about this as this plays out.

Mr. RASIEJ: Thank you for being so interested.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Andrew Rasiej, founder and publisher of techPresident.com and publisher of the Personal Democracy Forum in New York.

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