Digital Life


Facebook and other new media technologies will play a big role in President Obama's reelection campaign, but Republicans are not surrendering the online space to the president. Mitt Romney announced his presidential exploratory committee in a web video. Sarah Palin has almost half a million followers on Twitter. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how the role of new media in 2012 might different from previous elections.

ARI SHAPIRO: One thing about the web has not changed. Any trickster with an idea can undermine the best-laid plans. Jon Huntsman learned that the hard way this week. He's a Republican preparing for a presidential run, about to step down as President Obama's ambassador to China. A Democratic activist bought the website And this week it went live, with a letter from Huntsman praising President Obama. Democratic new media consultant, Kombiz Lavasany, says the guy bought the site on a whim.

Mr. KOMBIZ LAVASANY (Democratic New Media Consultant): He now essentially has Jon Huntsman's campaign domain to do whatever he wants. And these are things that anybody can participate in whether they're an outside group with money or whether they're just an activist who's, you know, unhappy about something and wants to create a Facebook group.

SHAPIRO: Facebook is one important weapon in the political online arsenal. But nobody can win this fight with Facebook alone. Liberal activist Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee still finds old-school tools to be the most useful for mobilizing people.

Mr. ADAM GREEN (Progressive Change Campaign Committee): Really the most efficient way to organize people, online, remains email. One concrete example if a million people join a Facebook group in support of some candidate, but you want to have a rally in one local city, Facebook doesn't allow you to just target people who live around that city.

SHAPIRO: Internet activism has always been a medium of both-and, not either-or. It's about Twitter and YouTube and, this time around, there are even more new technologies that no presidential candidate has ever used before: canvassing apps for the IPhone and IPad, location targeting technologies for field organizers. And even the old sites, like Facebook and Google, have new features that could change the 2012 dynamic in ways no one can predict today. Lee Rainie directs the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life project.

Mr. LEE RAINIE (Director, Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project): For even the most traditional kinds of actors to be nimble in these spaces, it's mostly going to depend on their willingness to exploit these new tools and their interest in going into places where all the outcomes aren't necessarily well-understood.

SHAPIRO: Research from Pew showed that in the 2010 midterms, Republicans caught up to Democrats in their use of new media, helped along by the Tea Party's enthusiasm. Now Republican Becky Donatelli believes the 2012 campaign is a jump ball where the web advantage could go to either party. She was John McCain's chief internet strategist during his two presidential runs. And Donatelli says politicians on the web used to try to pull people online, from wherever they were to the candidate's homepage. Now, they push.

Ms. BECKY DONATELLI (Chief Internet Strategist for John McCain): Instead of hoping to get them back to a website, we're delivering them messages on Facebook, targeted advertising, email, we're pushing out message to the political landscape.

SHAPIRO: You no longer have to visit Sarah Palin's blog to find out what she thinks. Now those messages pop up in your Facebook or Twitter feed. Right now, the biggest force in the 2012 campaign is the Obama reelection operation. One democratic official says the strategy is for a small number of campaign staff to serve a large mass movement of people who use the web to self-organize. This official says they want people a year from now say this was the easiest campaign to get involved with ever.

Of course the web is just a means to an end. That ultimate goal can be to get people personally involved, or to get their money. Online fundraising has grown in every campaign, and this is expected to be the most expensive one in history.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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