Technology in the Political Arena

A few weeks ago, Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States. But that’s not the only news that has tongues wagging. People are talking about the crucial medium that helped put him there.

In today’s increasingly interconnected world, in which geographic boundaries are obviated by the ubiquitous nature of the World Wide Web, even some of the most highly ranked government officials turn to familiar, regular-people technology to get their messages across.

Take, for instance, the president himself. While he was running for office, President Obama had about 3 million Facebook supporters and managed to muster up four times as many MySpace “friends” as former Republican nominee John McCain, according to a CNN article.

Further, the president revealed the identity of his running mate, Joe Biden, to his loyal and tech-savvy supporters via text message.

After his election in November, Obama wasted no time going live with a Web site that would give the American people — or anyone in the world, for that matter — important news and updates, including a detailed agenda for the Obama administration.

The new millennium appears to have ushered in a technology platform that allows candidates to get increasingly competitive, not to mention creative.

Are the days of the Roosevelt fireside chats officially over? It seems so, as Obama appears to want to move beyond one-way communication and spur interactivity between the government and its people.

For instance, Change.gov urges visitors to share their visions for the Obama presidency. A few months ago, CNN reported that prior to signing any nonemergency legislation, the president would wait a period of five days to allow the general public to post their thoughts online.

Technology and the Internet may have made an indelible mark on the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign — and, undoubtedly, many campaigns to come — but the newly elected president isn’t the only political figure going online as a means of communicating with his constituency. Toward the end of December, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom used the ever-popular YouTube site to publicly broadcast his entire State of the City speech.

In his online message, Newsom said he expects to inform the public on matters such as universal health care, education and the budget without the running commentary of various media outlets.

Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has applauded the Internet as a practical way to communicate directly with the public. Almost a year ago, Brown created an online version of “Questions to the Prime Minister,” a constitutional convention in the U.K. in which members of Parliament are given half an hour to ask the prime minister questions.

According to a Telegraph article, the new version would allow any member of the general public to post video questions on the YouTube-hosted site, and Brown would pick the most popular questions to respond to via video messages.

Opening up this avenue of communication via technology leads to greater transparency in the government, which certainly is a good thing. However, it also allows for more prodding on the part of the people, so even the slightest misstep or faux pas can be magnified.

In my estimation, even politicians with the best intentions who choose to leverage technology to their advantage must brace themselves, as they could be viewed and criticized more harshly than those who don’t.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the Internet — and indeed technology in general — will continue to play a fundamental role in the political arena for decades to come. Just looking at the technology-related strides made by the Obama campaign, the future of elections and campaign races is ripe for even more creative and innovative tactics. 8

–  Deanna Hartley, dhartley@certmag.com

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Deanna Hartley

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