Law in the Internet Society

Why The Internet Chose Barack Obama

The Internet Chose President-Elect Barack Obama

The 2008 Presidential Election in the United States was an historical election for many reasons. A lot of focus has been on the fact that America elected its first black president. This election also marks the first time since my birth that a presidential election was won by someone not named Bush or Clinton. This election was like nothing that had happened in American politics in the last twenty years, and it was made possible by the Internet.

Many news gathering organizations have reported the game-changing effect that new technology had on the 2008 election. Writing for the BBC, Steve Schifferes stated, “[T]he more nimble use of the internet by the Obama campaign in its early stages helped him overcome the huge initial lead of Hillary Clinton.” Time magazine credits Obama’s use of the Internet for his campaign’s unbelievable ability to shatter previous fundraising records. The New York Times and ABC News have also published articles analyzing the Obama campaign’s groundbreaking use of the Internet.

That the Internet played a crucial role in the election of Barack Obama seems clear. The more interesting questions are How and Why.

The Obama Campaign Used The Internet Better

The sometimes unsung heroes of the Obama Campaign were given due credit by the President-Elect as he spoke at the end of the election. It was “the best campaign team ever assembled” that made his innovative use of the Internet possible. Joe Trippi, who attempted to use the Internet in novel ways while working for the Howard Dean campaign, congratulated the Obama Campaign for having, “used the Internet to organize his supporters in a way that would have in the past required an army of volunteers and paid organizers on the ground.”

Time magazine discussed in detail how Obama raised money in a completely new way by using the Internet. Getting low number donations from hundreds of thousands of supporters did not just enable Obama to raise more money than ever before, it also gave his campaign a constant flow of money. As Karen Tumulty writes for Time magazine, the internet made it possible to set up “systems by which donors can have their credit cards billed automatically in easy-to-budget monthly amounts of as little as $20.” This could basically ensure a steady flow of campaign money.

What Obama’s campaign did with the Internet is not the entirety of how the Internet affected this campaign. There were a number of unique benefits that Obama derived from the Internet because of who he was.

Barack Obama Was Uniquely Suited To Campaign In The Era Of The Internet

The masterful use of a brand new medium of communication is one of the many ways in which Obama’s campaign echoed that of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was uniquely suited to television because of his youth and good looks. The effectiveness of Obama’s brilliant rhetoric was exponentially magnified by Youtube and online news websites. Supporters and undecided voters could watch his moving speeches again and again and he benefitted from what Time magazine estimates was the equivalent of millions of hours of free advertizing. The less eloquent Senator McCain could not derive the same benefit.

The Internet also caters to authenticity. Claire Miller writes for the New York Times, “As Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary words kept surfacing, people could re-watch Mr. Obama’s speech on race. To date, 6.7 million people have watched the 37-minute speech on YouTube? .” The Fact-checking value of the Internet was also a danger. Throughout the campaign, millions of people watched McCain’s comments about spending a hundred years in Iraq and other obvious blunders. Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, put it best. “There will be a lot of collateral damage coming to grips with the fact that we’re in a reality TV series, ‘Politics 24/7.” In a world where everything you do and say leaves its indelible mark on the Internet, Barack Obama’s consistency and temperament truly paid off.

The timing of Barack Obama’s decision to run for president was also of great benefit to him. He entered a political climate of complete disillusionment, and promised something very different than the status quo. Obviously, his rhetoric helped him spread the message of change, but his youth, his race, and his political outsider status all helped him to embody the image of change in a way that McCain could not. Rallying the youth vote was essential to Obama’s victory and they responded both to what he said and to who he was. The BBC article describes how social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook allowed Obama supporters to demonstrate their support in a very public way. An ABC News article discusses how Obama is already beginning to use the internet to make millions of supporters feel like they are involved in his presidency in the same way they felt that they were involved in his candidacy. Obama did an excellent job of making a disillusioned electorate feel like they finally getting control of their government back.

Why Did The Internet Choose Barack Obama?

The clearest statement of how much the Internet helped Barack Obama has probably come from Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of The Huffington Post. At a Web 2.0 panel, she unequivocally stated, “Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee.” As clear as that is to many Americans, there is a second element that is equally true even if potentially less clear. Barack Obama did not win solely because his campaign used the Internet better than his adversaries. He won because he is uniquely suited to being a politician in the new era of Internet campaigns. He did not buy the presidency, and he did not innovate his way into the White House. The Internet chose Barack Obama because of who he is. Only time will tell if it chose right.

-- OluwafemiMorohunfola - 06 Nov 2008

The point of this essay seems to be opposition to an inference. If one says "the Internet made Barack Obama President," I suppose one could understand this to mean "Barack Obama didn't successfully campaign for and become President. The Internet did it." Against that meaning, this essay seems to me to stand as a competent and eloquent refutation.

But who would mean such a silly thing? It is obvious that Mr Obama (as well as Mr Alexander and Mr Ploufe, who also deserve credit for the political messaging on which you concentrate your attention) has brilliantly understood the moment and has campaigned successfully because he did so. His political brilliance and that of his colleagues, has taken by storm a barricade of power that most of us were pretty sure wouldn't fall in our lifetimes. So even those who opposed his election are not likely to deny him the credit of his achievement.

The statement's more likely meaning is either (a) for the first time, the Internet was the dominant medium of communication affecting the outcome of the campaign, and now elects presidents in the way that television used to do; or (b) without the changes in campaigning brought specifically about by the Net (that is, under 2004 conditions) Barack Obama--despite his extraordinary skill in messaging and presentation--would not now be President-Elect.

The weak form of the statement, (a), seems to me pretty much unquestionable, and at any rate you do not question it. A responsive objection would be, for example, "No, TV is still the dominant medium, because...." Or, "Well, the McCain campaign doesn't seem to have been much hurt by the total inadequacy of its use of the network either for messaging or organization, or by the candidate's obvious absence of understanding of the way we live now." Come to think of it, that last response probably won't work. Right? So I don't think you are denying meaning (a), or are even in any position to deny it.

The strong form of the statement, (b), that the change from 2004 conditions brought about by the Net is a but-for cause of the presidency, seems to me interesting but highly arguable. Here, then, is where one might have expected you to direct your argument. But you pass instead like ships in the night.

The essence of the case for this statement, it seems to me, is found on two points: (1) That Sen. Obama won the nomination because he piled up delegates inexpensively in early caucus states by using a Net-based organization that was the only way to compete against Sen. Clinton's overwhelming advantage at every level of organization within the Democratic Party; and (2) That Sen. Obama was able to avoid being defined by the other side, as had happened twice consecutively to Mr Bush's opponents, because he found in the Net a scale of donor support greater than the Republicans' direct-mail empire.

I think both of these arguments could be successfully countered, but this draft concentrates on messaging, which is not likely to be the subject in dispute. Sen. Obama, as the campaign showed, would have been a great candidate on television, if television had still been the dominant medium, so the quality of the message is not where the "but-for" case lies. And the successes in the early caucus states might well be said to have less to do with the Obama forces organizing through the Net, and more to do with Sen. Clinton's decision to triumph early in the large states that held primaries, sealing the appearance of inevitability. She won the big states, but it turned into a long two-person race instead of the coronation of an inevitable, and in a two-person race she needed to make up the delegate lead he cobbled together while losing many big primaries, and she couldn't do it. On that account, the nomination was lost by her errors rather than won by his message, his money, or his network organization, and the Net was not a but-for cause of the nomination, in which case, I think everyone would be forced to agree that it is not a but-for cause of the victory in the general. Sen. McCain would have lost that campaign if it had been conducted with 2004 technology; I think everyone would probably agree.

So the route to improvement here, in my opinion, is to decide first whether you are really trying to disprove something, and if so to disprove something that someone might actually be trying to assert. If you are opposing something, the best essay is as always the one that deals fairly with more than one point of view on a complicated question.

-- EbenMoglen - 19 Nov 2008



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r3 - 19 Nov 2008 - 17:38:25 - EbenMoglen
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