Sunday, December 06, 2009

Internet Transforming Politics and the Media

One example of a journalist who cannot be accused of not giving a topic the depth of analysis it deserves is the ABC's Eleanor Hall. She has just completed studies at Oxford University Internet Institute on the use of the Internet in politics. Her carefully researched 37 page Trinity Term Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper "Politics in the Youtube Age: Transforming the Political and Media Culture?", is available online. She argues that Obama's use of the Internet was not the grassroots campaign it was portrayed as, but had strong central coordination.

I concluded that the Obama campaign is less revolutionary than it at first appears and that there are a range of reasons why it is unlikely that British politicians will follow even some of the more riskfree elements of the Obama e-campaign.

The Obama campaign showed that online social networking can be a powerful political tool and the US President’s web supporters are justified in claiming this as the first election victory for YouTube politics. But it also showed that a web 2.0 community can be harnessed to a fairly traditional campaign hierarchy and could be open to manipulation by the very political gatekeepers it claims to
be challenging.

Obama’s is a story of how web 2.0 helped an outsider to get into the race for the White House but then how the candidate’s campaign used social networking to increase several important levers of its power. The campaign amassed a huge database of supporter contacts and information, it raised the biggest war chest of funds in US history and it used the web to marshal and direct its online supporters. It also used the internet to counter one of the other political power centres in the campaigning environment, the mainstream media. In doing all of this there were negotiations made and, sometimes uneasy, alliances formed.

The Obama team directed political activity but did not squash dissent, as campaign directors in a TV age campaign might have done. It broke away from the old “war room” approach to data that was characterised by secrecy and central control and gave supporters more autonomy in the way they involved themselves in the political campaign. The web 2.0 community showed it was powerful and Obama’s embrace of it meant many more citizens did engage in the political process. But this was still a political campaign with the goal of winning power and was strikingly similar in key respects to an old-style top down, command and control political operation.

As for British politicians emulating elements of the Obama e -campaign to re-engage citizens and reinvigorate the democratic process, most players agreed it appears unlikely to happen any time soon, despite the expenses crisis. While many MPs and citizens are increasingly using web 2.0 to engage in politics, institutional and cultural differences between the US and the UK make it unlikely Britain will ever see Obama-levels of enthusiasm for using web 2.0 in political campaigns. ...

From: Politics in the Youtube Age: Transforming the Political and Media Culture?, Eleanor Hall, Trinity Term, Reuters Institute Fellowship, University of Oxford, 2009

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