American democracy in the age of the Internet - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

American democracy in the age of the Internet

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The Internet played a critical role in the 2008 election campaign. (©istockphoto.com/Sean Locke) The Internet played a critical role in the 2008 election campaign. (©istockphoto.com/Sean Locke)

By Mike McCurry and Mark McKinnon

It's been said that looking backwards on an election campaign is a losers' game, but sometimes hindsight offers valuable lessons. As two survivors of many winning and losing campaigns we believe that the 2008 campaign has revealed one clear new truth - it's the Internet, stupid.

To some, that may seem like old news given former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's brief, Internet-driven surge to the front of the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination race. But, as Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said of the Obama campaign's online work: "They were Apollo 11, and we were the Wright Brothers."

This year, the Internet was a force for both recruiting and organizing volunteers and for real-time distribution of political messaging directly to millions of voters. Both campaigns relentlessly used their own Web sites to post videos of campaign appearances and policy addresses, share campaign ads, solicit donations, and roll out policy papers. The Internet became their town center.

The Internet's impact is not unique to politics, of course. Unusual partnerships and new business models that deliver information, services and entertainment over the Internet are redefining the way we learn, shop and play. The recent agreement among Google, publishers, and authors means consumers will be able to access a digital library that could never be matched in any single physical location, while also protecting authors' rights to earn compensation for their work. Entertainment companies and technology businesses are partnering across industry lines to provide for the safe, fast, and reliable delivery of music, video, games and other content on a growing array of Web sites.

But the impact on politics may be particularly significant by boosting public involvement in government and even changing the type of leaders we select. The Internet is now becoming the way voters communicate with one another -- sharing videos, blogs, and other political info they want their friends to know.

For most voters, the Internet has replaced the campaign rally. The Pew Foundation reports that 39 percent of voters have watched a campaign video online; and the Internet is where five million turned for replays of the President-elect's 37-minute race relations speech last March. Until this year, Americans would have been restricted to a 90-second sound bite of that speech on the nightly news. What we have is a new business model for politics in the Internet era.

And, this collaboration between old and new media multiplies the power of both. Among the campaign's most damaging moments was Sara Palin's fumbling interview with Katie Couric on CBS Nightly News. The impact was heightened by voters who watched the video online and shipped it to friends with an e-mail. Governor Palin's image problem deepened when the millions more visited Hulu.com and other Web sites 50 million times to watch legally posted replays of Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey's interpretation of that interview and subsequent comments by the Alaska governor.

And, it isn't just the candidates or their supporters who are trying new approaches. The "old" media is working to marry itself to the new ways as well. When former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed President-elect Obama on NBC's "Meet the Press" program, the network didn't wait for the scheduled broadcast time to share the news. Within minutes, the network scooped its own program by posting the video online. On election morning, page one of The Washington Post's print edition exhorted voters to turn to the newspaper's Web site for live election results. The Wall Street Journal now offers bite-sized video documentaries along side its online news articles and New York Times' reporters are doing double-duty with short video reports that complement their traditional work.

If there's a chink in the Internet's political armor, it's the same threat of net pollution - viruses, hack attacks, spam and illegal trafficking - that can hamper political discourse just as it bedevils every consumer by clogging the Internet, disrupting communication and exposing private information. For example, Newsweek recently reported that both the Obama and McCain campaign computer systems were hacked, possibly by a foreign entity seeking insights that might help it deal with a new administration.

The 2008 campaign shows the Internet can bolster democracy by fostering a two-way dialogue between candidates and citizens and, potentially, by mobilizing the country behind common goals. To reap those benefits, we should treat the Internet like democracy itself -- a national resource that we must safeguard and protect as a vital new forum for politics, debate and policy discourse.

Mike McCurry is a veteran political consulant who served in the White House as press secretary to President Bill Clinton from 1995-1998. Mark McKinnon is a veteran political consultant who has worked for President George Bush and Senator John McCain's candidacy for President. They are both Co-Chairmen of Arts and Labs, a collaboration between technology companies and creative communities that have embraced today's rich Internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers, www.artsandlabs.com.


REALCLEARPOLITICS ©2008

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