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Shifting politics by social networking

Barack Obama was the first politician who used the internet to win big. Gavan Reilly investigates how the Web stands to become a permanent feature of government.

When the grind, bombast and furore of the 2008 US Presidential election dies down, and the history books record Barack Obama’s meteroric rise to the highest office his country can offer him, history will also have to acknowledge the organisational brilliance of his campaign manager, David Plouffe, and the pristine tact of his chief strategist, David Axelrod.

History would do well, however, to recall the contribution of perhaps the most vital doner to Obama’s campaign; a 24 year-old, average-looking guy named Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook and the man driving Obama’s unparalleled use of social media throughout his campaign. As Obama’s self-styled ‘Online Organisational Guru’, Hughes has helped the President-Elect build an online movement of supporters worldwide, with an incredible resonance and ability to reach into the hearts and minds of those who matter most in any election – the voters.

All poltitical campaigns, especially one spanning 22 months, demand an infinite stream of human and financial capital. There are two vital components that prevent campaigns running aground in choppy political waters: the ability to keep people interested and enthusiastic, and the money to keep struggling on.
Hughes’ expertise in the Obama campaign has been vital on both counts. The ingenious mechanism of accepting countless small donations from everyday citizens over several platforms has transformed the political landscape, allowing Obama to raise over $600m since he announced his candidacy while more than half of donations were made in batches of under $200, and are free from public scrutiny. Coupled with changes in fundraising regulations which put an end to public campaign funding (whereby the government funded campaigns through taxpayer money), the Obama campaign outspent that of John McCain by four to one, and could well have an enormous financial war chest left over for referral in four years’ time.

Aside from the innovative fundraising campaign that Obama introduced to the political world, the social networking aspect of his presidential bid has caused an arguably even bigger shift in the dynamics of a political campaign.

A firm grasp in communication has proven to be the secret weapon that has won Presidential wars in the past; Franklin D. Roosevelt was aware of the power of the radio in reaching into each American home. 30 years later, John F. Kennedy scored his knockout blow over Richard Nixon with a keen awareness of the nuances of televised debates. Where Nixon sported stubble, no make-up and a haggard appearance, complete with a haggard knee, Kennedy won over the audience in part due to his made-up and clean appearance. In 2008, Obama will be remembered for his embrace of another medium: the internet’s social media.

Obama will be remembered for his embrace of the Internet’s social media

Admittedly, Obama is not the first Presidential candidate to make use of social media. In 2004, Howard Dean kickstarted the online fundraising process, and used to organise campaign meetings and get-togethers all over the country, with reasonable success. The Obama team, however, have taken massive steps forward and used the tools and apparatus of Web 2.0 to help train and organise their volunteers, allowing them to rapidly share and update information with each other, and in some cases, even manage fellow volunteers.

More fascinating than organising his own staff, though, is how Obama has used social media to spread his message to the voters and the LGBTwider world. His use of Web 2.0 and its most famous tools is an exemplary case study in how to become one with a voter. The Obama team set up a blog, gave it prominence on the campaign website, and updated it several times daily from locations all over the country, giving people a direct peek at what it was like to work on a Presidential campaign. His followers got involved too: another section of the website hosted a ‘Fight the Smears’ microsite where Obama supporters and volunteers could mention an unfair smear on their candidate and rebut it in their own time, and on their own terms.

Where Chris Hughes really showed his skills was the use of social networking. By simply holding his finger on the pulse of the world, Hughes figured out where voters conversed with each other, giving Obama a visible presence where he felt the voters lived their lives. The results could not have been more visible: the official Barack Obama page on Facebook, at the time of writing, boasted 3,048,698 supporters – the most of any page on the site – while his MySpace listed nearly 900,000 more.

With legions of followers at easy command, it became very easy, and very cheap, to share news with supporters and to rally the troops for new voter registration drives. A message only needed to be posted once for it to land in nearly four million inboxes – and with the average voter telling five others how they voted, the positive effects are huge.

Yet another brilliant example of how to use social media to political advantage can be seen in the campaign’s YouTube site. In the era of full video-on-demand, Obama was fully aware that every last nuance, every turn of phrase would be up for analysis, and made sure that every sentence of every speech was soundly based on faultless fact. What’s more, every speech went on his YouTube, giving the masses worldwide even easier access to his message.

Obama’s campaign made even better use of the popular microblogging service, Twitter. Imagine a social network entirely built around the status messages you’ll know from Bebo or Facebook. Any user can choose to follow the updates of any other, and share news, thoughts, or whatever is on their mind, across an abundance of different platforms, accessible by web, phone, or SMS. By proactively seeking out discussion on current affairs topics, the people behind Obama’s Twitter account built a solid following, and when the hype built up around Obama’s campaign, numbers took care of themselves. By exploiting the desire of people to keep in touch with breaking news, Obama built up a following of 125,000 people, all of whom then immediately received updates – essentially propaganda – as soon as Obama HQ released it.

The only question remaining is what will become of Obama’s social media accounts when the dust settles on 20 January and his administration takes control. Certainly the signs are positive. Obama’s official agenda promises open and transparent government interaction with new technology, and there stands a real chance that the US President may hold himself and his government accountable, not through convoluted departmental websites, but through the social media arms that its citizenry make use of every day.

Perhaps more so than Obama’s political legacy, the lasting effect of a transparent and approachable government might be the single facet of the Obama era that ultimately earns the most flattering replication across the wider world.

These are, indeed, exciting times.