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Technoshock Politics: How the Internet Shapes American Politics

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Flickr: Accretion Disc
Flickr: Accretion Disc

There is a story about Benjamin Franklin's time in Paris as an ambassador that is worth considering. He found himself among the crowd as the first hot-air balloon for manned flight was being tested. When one member of the crowd was scoffing what good the balloon would do, Franklin retorted, "What good is a newborn baby?"

The Internet has gone through its own "what good is it?" arguments since its conception in the 1990s but time has since proved most of those critiques to be short-sighted. Today, online usage has gone from a little over 360 million to a staggering 2.2 billion people worldwide. The average American user spends an average of 32 hours a month online. With that in mind, one would think that politicians would see this as a natural venue to attract voters, but there remains a fundamental disconnect on how the Internet has become a true game changer in the area of politics.

President Obama, whose successful 2008 Presidential campaign can in part be attributed to his adroit understanding of the Internet, is one of the exceptions to this rule, but a look at Michael Steele's 2010 RNC website revamp (which the Non-Profit Tech Blog called everything one should NOT do when doing an RFP for a website) shows how the lack of vision persists. While the blundering through the digital landscape goes on from old-school pols, the Internet has gone past infancy and straight into adolescence with all the lack of restraint and life-changing actions that statement implies. In three fundamental areas, the Internet has changed the terms of the political debate: public records, public pressure, and public funding.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, it was easy to get away with spinning the truth the way you needed to. You could say something, have it be reported, claimed that it wasn't what you said or that it was taken out of context, and that was generally the end of the matter. If you had a smooth enough presence and/or a competent media team, you would get away with it.

But Bill Maher was only half-joking when he said "Everything you say can be and will be used against you in a Google search." The rise of social media has made the above media play very much obsolete.

Also, whenever something is said aloud by any politician under the current public spotlight, what was said is usually broadcast across Twitter and Facebook in a matter of hours, if not minutes. There is also usually a link to the original video if it hasn't already been embedded in the post itself. While Google is the top search engine on the planet, it is far from the only one with such competitors as Bing and Yahoo Search. Anyone wanting to acquire more information on a candidate and his policies need only have careful word choice to find what they are looking for.

The fallout from these sort of developments can be seen everywhere. Christine O'Donnell looked like a pretty good candidate until old interviews of her on Bill Maher's show "Politically Incorrect" in the late 1990s were found on YouTube and broadcast on network television. Anthony Weiner displayed the questionable judgment of posting semi-nude pictures of himself on a public Twitter account. After two months of fruitless denials and allegations that he had been hacked, he was forced to resign .

The one thing that sunk Sue Lowden's chances at running against Harry Reid in Nevada can be summed up by the following words: "a chicken to the doctor." The result of that embarrassing gaffe was an indie political ad which sampled that quote and went viral enough to sink her campaign once and for all. Speaking of political ads, who can forget how Herman Cain's campaign during the primaries suffered not only derision from his unfortunate ad with his smoking campaign manager , but also a parody featuring the daughters of Jon Huntsman blowing bubbles instead of cigarette smoke.

Bottom line: what happened years ago, happened today, and will happen next week will live forever online in a way that no amount of conventional spin can ever make go away.

While some right-wing commentators would have us believe that protesters have only been active since the 1960s, organizing for and against certain parties and causes is as American as apple pie. From the post-independence gathering of Shays' Rebellion to the abolitionist and labor movements of the 19th Century, there were no shortage of examples that the successful Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s could draw from.

Net activism is a fairly recent development, even younger than the Net. But the full power of public pressure was felt in the protest of the 2012 SOPA/PIPA bills moving their way through Congress. According to Digital Trends, approximately 75,000 websites shut down in protest over the legislation earlier this year. The resulting public pressure made sure that the vote on the bill never took place.

Even on a smaller scale, the effects of Net Activism can be felt. John Gibson was forced to apologize for insensitive remarks concerning the death of Heath Ledger when called on it by ThinkProgress and others. Glenn Beck may still be employed by Fox News had it not been for the steady online-based campaign of Color of Change and People For the American Way to get 400 sponsors to pull their spots. ALEC, a once-feared lobbying group founded by Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich in 1973, has been shedding corporate partners at a regular rate, thanks in part to online efforts like the CREDO Action Network and PFTAW.

Granted, as the recent Chik-Fil-A imbroglio demonstrates, not all online campaigns give these kind of results. However, through the power of email and social networking, we see the ability for people to be able to link together in a way that is unprecedented.

For all the complaints about Mitt Romney's recent trip to foreign countries to raise funds for his presidential campaign, one thing has to be said. He was stupidly public about it. Had he possessed any foresight whatsoever, he would have done the transaction online in the form of individual donations, which is becoming one of the most efficient ways to raise funds outside of corporate sponsorship money.

As ReTargeTer tells the story, this particular development owes everything to Howard Dean when he was running in the 2004 Democratic Presidential primaries. Following a successful community meeting that had been coordinated with the help of Meetup.com, he began fostering one of the first online networks of independent bloggers and supporters. While they lost control of some of their messaging (some cynics might even say it was a good metaphor for "the Dean Scream" that would sink his chances), they gain back that much more in campaign financing. Dean wound up shattering Bill Clinton's record of most money raised by a Democrat in one quarter by $4.5 million dollars, powered by online donations.

This paved the way for a first term senator named Barack Obama to bring in updated elements like Facebook into the mix. Without holding a single fundraiser, he was able to raise $55 million dollars in the month of February 2008 without a fundraiser in sight, $45 million of which were online donations. This helped him build up a network that propelled him through the primaries and into the White House. Now, with a second term up for grabs, he is tapping into the contacts and networks of his previous campaign to do it all over again.

Plenty of Congressional candidates and members from Kirsten Gillibrand to Louise Slaughter have since followed the President's lead. All it takes is one plea with a link to a donation website and you can raise funds from well beyond the borders of your own state. Given that we're in the midst of an economic recession without a lot of loose cash for the average American, there will likely be a bit of lag in this area of development. However, once the economy picks up again, expect politicians to be tapping this resource on a regular basis.

There is one last mitigating factor that may limit the impact of the developments mentioned above: the boomer generation. At 77.6 million people whose grasp of technology is not quite the equal of the vastly outnumbered three generations after it, their sheer numbers are liable to mitigate any clout that these new phenomenon will have on the political landscape.

But the trends exist regardless and are on track to continue, evolve, and otherwise make great strides with this new century. After all, newborn babies eventually do grow up.