The 2008 political campaign undoubtedly changed how politicians view the importance of the Internet. Some have said that without the Internet, President Barack Obama wouldn't have been elected. Regardless of your view on that, there's no denying that the Internet has changed the way we view, research and debate politics today.
In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of adult Internet users go online for data about government spending and activities. Think back 15 years ago -- that would have seemed otherworldly! Users are also utilizing social tools, with 31 percent using blogs, social networking sites, online video, email, and text alerts to keep informed about government activities.
Below are highlighted some important ways that the Internet has changed political debate and campaigning online, and how we process and consume that information.
How we donate our time has changed.
Volunteering has always been an important part of the political process, especially for politicians during campaigns. But with the use of the Internet, recruiting volunteers has changed tremendously. During the 2008 campaign, my.BarackObama.com garnered 1.5 million volunteer accounts. This website is still active today, and Romney has a similar resource for interested citizens.
Political activism has also changed with the birth of the Internet. Today, we can schedule meetings, rallies, and fundraisers on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, or even create a MeetUp group.
Politicians can now reach out to constituents virtually.
Door-to-door campaigning is a thing of the past. Today, Twitter and Facebook chats are being used to target constituents. The White House uses Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Reddit to connect with Americans. That's a lot of social media. Obama, among many other politicians, has organized a Twitter town hall at the White House to answer questions from the public. The list goes on and on, but the number of Internet venues in which politicians can connect with us are many.
Breaking news, analysis, and statistics are available 24/7.
As we all know, the news cycle is entrenched in new information 24/7. This means the mainstream media discuss and share political information, news, and analysis at an incredibly fast pace. Citizens who want to keep up, can and do. The quantity and quality of our political debates are different because of the change in the news cycle and the Internet.
We can learn about candidates and issues with one click.
Fact-checking has become easier with the use of search engines. During debates, we can now Google, Bing, or Yahoo! search facts, statistics, and definitions. In 2008 Google research found that Google searches increased during political debates.
Using Yahoo! Labs, you can track political search engine trends too. Some of the top searches for the second week of October include "vp debate 2012," "obama donor scandal," and "mitt romney debating himself." These searches are not only interesting, but point to changes in how we find political information.
We have more venues than ever to voice our opinions.
Political debate today has a much different meaning. Why? Because more people are speaking out and being heard. In the pre-Internet era, you had to write an opinion column in a newspaper or send a letter to the editor to have your opinion published. Otherwise, only your close friends, family, and coworkers heard your political rants. Today, anyone can create a blog, post a comment on a social networking site or at the end of many articles and blogs, or participate in a forum -- all with a much larger audience.
Online video changed how we view and digest debates.
Inexpensive webcams, audio software, and video-sharing websites like YouTube Self allow us to create self-produced video and upload it to large servers with ease. Politicians are using online video too -- for Q&A's, live streaming debates, and appearances. By July 2012, Obama's YouTube channel had over 200 million views. Think of how costly that time would have been on TV or radio!
These changes have only scratched the surface of what the Internet has provided for the political realm. Even as the current election season wraps up, we'll continue to hear of new Internet innovations and technologies, ones that were used to reach voters already as well as ones that are just emerging.
In what other way has the Internet changed how we process politics and participate in debate?
Rand Strauss is the President and CEO of PeopleCount.org, a nonpartisan organization that enables the public to communicate constructively by taking stands on political issues influencing the country today. Connect with Rand and PeopleCount.org on Twitter and Facebook.