The Networked Election

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American voters have selected a new president, who will be sworn in early next year. In addition to Barack Obama, I can identify another big winner in this year’s election: networks.

Although the use of the Internet as a means for reaching voters and raising money had been seen in prior U.S. elections — take Howard Dean’s “Deaniacs” in 2004, for instance — it played a prominent role in many campaigns this year. Here’s how a few candidates made waves on the Web.

Obama’s Social Network

Although his first forays into social networks were somewhat ham-fisted, Obama leveraged this new medium to great effect as he used his profiles on MySpace and Facebook as virtual meeting places for young people. While virtually all candidates did this, perhaps none did it as well as Obama.

Certainly, none collected as many “friends” — Obama has more than 800,000 on MySpace — and his Facebook page is as good a place to find information on his campaign as his official Web site. And regardless of the outcome, the unprecedented number of young voters who participated in this election undoubtedly was due in part to social networks.

McCain and the RNC’s Open-Source Platform

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate John McCain was maligned — perhaps unfairly — for his apparent unfamiliarity with e-mail. However, McCain and the GOP did have at least one interesting and fairly unique way to get supporters to participate in the campaign on the Web.

Back in July, the Republican Party launched a Web site and Facebook application to collect policy suggestions in a discussion-thread format from likely voters, in exchange for their e-mail addresses. This offered right-leaning Netizens a chance to weigh in on important issues and gave the GOP contact information for people who would make campaign contributions and attend rallies.

Ron Paul’s ‘Moneybombs’

Although he didn’t win any states in the Republican primary race, candidate Ron Paul did grab headlines for some surprising one-day holiday fundraising tallies. The Libertarian-leaning Paul hauled in more than $6 million on the anniversary weekend of the Boston Tea Party (Dec. 15-16, 2007), more than $4.5 million on British holiday Guy Fawkes Day (Nov. 5, 2007) and approximately $2 million on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 21, 2008). The most amazing part about these mass donations was that they were conceived and executed entirely by the “Netroots.” Paul’s official campaign staff had almost nothing to do with the planning.

Now, this only scratches the surface of the ways in which the Internet was used in this election. I haven’t even mentioned how YouTube or Twitter have changed the dynamics of politicking. There’s also Internet campaigning, which in 2007-08 included spreading false rumors about religious affiliation, sexual orientation and the health problems of candidates via online forums and chain e-mails.

It’s a big subject with a lot of ground to cover, but one thing seems fairly clear: The Web is, and will continue to be, a useful tool for getting people informed about and engaged with this country’s political process. For that, and for the conclusion of what seemed like an endless election, we should be thankful.

– Brian Summerfield, bsummerfield@certmag.com

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