Politics and The Internets


A lot of attention is being paid to political efforts on the Internet lately. Every day this week the Washington Post has printed an article that in some way focuses on politics and the Internet, whether it being the use of YouTube by politicians, a flap over a picture on a campaign website, or the launch of a new online effort for bipartisanship. The Internet and politics are topics du jour in Washington this election season. Perhaps it’s because of the success of the YearlyKos convention or because the blogs and online organizing did not disappear after the 2004 elections as many in Washington expected. The answer to that is unknown but what is revealed in the media’s coverage of the Internet is a mix of bias, exuberance, and ignorance.

Today Howie Kurtz discovered YouTube, and that politicians are starting to post videos to the user-generated video posting site. Kurtz writes that “the center of gravity could shift to masses of people” if users created videos “for or against a candidate” that could “persuade other people”. Kurtz provides a number of examples of pro-McCain and pro-Hillary videos that, when compared to popular non-political videos, haven’t been viewed that often. Paul McNamara at NetworkWorld.com explains that the political videos “have been seen a few hundred to a few thousand times apiece; a drop in the bucket, not a building tidal wave.” However, Atrios points to a just-released Ned Lamont ad which has received over 100,000 views already. Perhaps insurgent candidates with a strong online presence can be more effective in this medium than old party stalwarts like McCain and Clinton. Or perhaps the guys at Wonkette have it right.

The Post and The Hill both have articles about two new online ventures intending to create a new kind of political dialogue. Ellen already touched on The Hill’s topic, Campaign Wikia, so I’ll leave that alone. The Post runs with a new website started by insider Washington consultants aiming to create a bipartisan social networking site focused on elevating the debate and avoiding partisanship. I’ll let Matt Yglesias at Tapped speak for me when he says, “My first instinct is to say that any Democrats (and, for that matter, Republicans) who have any of the strategists in question working for them ought to fire them all immediately. Obviously, there’s absolutely no place for people who don’t like partisanship running partisan political campaigns.” Politics without partisanship is like sailing without a sail.

And finally we have a negative story about politics and the Internet written by Marc Gunther in Fortune magazine. Gunther is another person decrying partisanship and believes that the choice created by the Internet is stifling mass culture and increasing partisanship. Gunther writes, “Politics in America has become polarized for many reasons, but a big one is the fact that people can now filter the news and opinion they get to avoid exposure to ideas with which they disagree.” Gunther fails to recognize how blogs work, stating that bloggers are equal to “cableheads” when in fact blogs allow people to interact with the news, and each other, rather than stare at a box while receiving diktats. The coverage of YearlyKos and the aforementioned Net-centric political stories show that the Internet is influencing politics in a powerful way. Some, like Gunther are openly hostile, while the pundits and consultants in Washington, while trying, haven’t quite figured it out yet.

Finally I’d like to point to this post by Jeff Jarvis where he announces the winner of the BBC’s contest to redesign their webpage. Jarvis writes, “What’s more important than the winner, of course, is the openness of the competition itself. Now if this were just an exercise in openness — here, kids, you go play here — then it would be a cynical ruse. But what it really is, instead, is a way to tap the wisdom and imagination of the smart crowd gathered around the BBC. Not doing that is being deaf to the possibilities. The BBC has been trying to open-source itself.” Here we have a mainstream media titan allowing readers — gasp! — to redesign an essential tool in their media empire, their website. I would like to see an explanation of how this undermines “mass culture”.