… my column from Business Lexington this month…
With increased Internet use and widespread broadband connectivity, the shift from old to new media is influencing the way people participate in elections, according to a recent report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Not since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated in front of 70 million new television watchers in 1960 have we seen such a change in political media. A wave of changes brought on by Web sites, blogs and social media is being led by the 18- to 30-year-old demographic and is spreading to reach Americans of all ages and backgrounds.
The number of Americans who received political information using the Internet in 2004 was around 13 percent. In the 2008 survey, that number had doubled. In the same period, younger voters using the TV as a major source dropped from 75 percent to 60 percent, while the percent using the Web soared from 21 percent to 46 percent. Daily newspapers have held steady for most of the population, but those under 30 use them half as much as they did in 2004.
And people are getting more active. The system got a taste of this during Congressman Ron Paul’s 2007 campaign, where the Internet’s power to mobilize grass roots efforts (if not votes) was convincingly demonstrated. A powerful, virally energized operation emerged that may form the template for an entirely new way of campaigning. Competitors scrambled to take note of Congressman Paul’s campaign tactics as he broke single-day fundraising records and went from silence to viable effort in the shortest time ever seen.
As impressive as it was, few think Web-based participatory media such as bloggers will move voters to the polls on their own. But the effect on regional, grassroots campaigning is beginning to show its strength. This “final mile” blogger-to-activist effect uses the Internet for efficiency but eventually depends on old-fashioned campaigning like rallies, petitions and meet-ups to actually affect primaries and elections. As was demonstrated, decentralized and passionate young voters, savvy in use of social networks like MySpace and Facebook, began to reach individuals in their community who pick up signs and knock on doors for the first time in their lives.
The “Big 3” phenomenon lives on today’s Internet, but with a big twist. The largest election news sites include MSNBC, CNN and Yahoo News, together earning 54 percent of all traffic. Unlike television, however, the remaining 46 percent exist in a “long tail” with hundreds of others, from the Drudge Report to Youtube to individual blogs.
One of the most impressive Web sites to emerge is Political Base a brain-child of CNET co-founder Shelby Bonnie and recently joined by Kentucky political veteran and former BluegrassReport.com blogger Mark Nickolas. “We’re trying to capitalize on an electorate that appears energized to change the system by giving them a place where they can learn the issues, explore multiple viewpoints, engage in debate, and mobilize others around their ideas,” explained Nickolas.
On many sites, participation changes conversations from “one to many” into “many to many,” often keeping controversial issues “alive” long after mainstream media has moved on. Watchdogs spot and post candidate inconsistencies and gaffes before campaign managers have a chance to do anything (and long after they’d rather forget.) Last summer, Senator George Allen, a Virginia Republican, was caught calling a college student of Indian descent a “macaca.” The student, who was videotaping, subsequently placed the tape on Youtube, where it was viewed over 250,000 times and was partially blamed for Senator Allen’s defeat.
“There’s no question that participatory media is where the growth is,” added Nickolas, “While the younger generation has embraced this media more than others, that is changing. They have grown-up — placing a premium on real-time interaction, being part of a conversation, or being entertained. Mainstream media tends to offer little of either. We offer users an unfiltered voice regardless of viewpoint. We are committed to providing a place for everyone to join the community.”
Political Base allows users to extract meaning from mountains of data in clean, personalized formats. Nickolas is quick to stress the importance of such tools. “A democracy can’t function without an informed electorate. … Our site gives people tools to connect the dots between money, media and politics to draw their own conclusions.”
It’s well known that people instinctively distrust marketing messages. So it’s no surprise they seek neutral ground for discussion. In fact, the Pew Study shows only 8 percent of Americans are visiting candidates’ Web sites, no matter how snazzy, choosing “unbiased” forums to get their information (or satire sites!) Sites such as Political Base are quick to fill this gap and provide territory for expression and learning. In fact, Political Base provides a user-editable wiki, presented in fact-sheet format. “Accuracy is critical when it comes to the Wiki,” Nickolas replied. “Submissions get approved by us first, and we’ll do some fact checking if necessary.”
With so few of the American voter visiting the candidate websites, it is a clear situation where non-site social media will pay off. Having others blog about you, being present on large social networks, and saturating video and podcast sites are a big part of campaigning on the long tail.
While the management of Political Base are Democrats, Nickolas stresses their intent is to give equal footing to all points of view. “You may not agree with us, but we offer you the ability to express that, challenging us and others. …That’s what’s great about America.”