About AEF | Newsletter | Site Map | Legal | Advanced Search
Print Version

A Second Chance: The Potential Of Politics Online

In a remote stretch of the Montana Rockies lies a ranch where all the hired hands are political junkies. The only things herded and roped there are the positions of political candidates.

The ranch, called the Great Divide, serves as headquarters for Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit group that was one of the first to provide information about candidates on the Internet. In the war room of the ranch, a large banner reads, "Quiet, please! Democracy is being reborn."

This hefty presumption formed the foundation for pioneers of the political Internet, who believed that the new medium provided the first opportunity in decades to repair the damage done to politics by television.

"I think the ideal was that there would be a lot more real grass roots, in terms of people realizing they had a voice, and that it could be as powerful as the bank accounts in Washington," says Graeme Browning, author of Electronic Democracy: Using the Internet to Transform American Politics. "To what degree are politicians engaging in town hall meetings with their constituents?" she says. "Not a lot."

This year seemed to hold great promise for online campaigning - a presidential election year intersecting with a striking milestone in the Internet market: For the first time, more than half of American households had Net access.

Further, there was some evidence that large numbers of people were using the Net to find political information.

One of the most comprehensive polls to date, a national survey commissioned by the Democracy Online Project at George Washington University, found in October 1999 that nearly a quarter of respondents had used the Net to learn about candidates. These factors should have presented optimum conditions for online campaigning.

Instead, the story that has emerged in the mainstream has been about money. The presidential campaign of John McCain reported collecting millions of dollars on the Net, which dazzled the political establishment, even though the campaign never produced any evidence to back the claim. Ironically, the story about money took the focus off the new medium's potential to diminish the power of cash in campaigns.

"I see it the Internet as a way to reduce the need for money in campaigns," says Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, which began offering online candidate information on a Gopher site in 1994.

The story about money "is not the best story to be told. It's very dehumanizing to reduce the democratic experience to a set of transactions," she says.

The Internet was to be the antidote to the wicked circle of politics in the television age, which involved cultivating special interests to raise big money, then spending it to broadcast negative campaign advertising, a practice that ultimately turned off the public.

In the ideal world of politics online, money would become immaterial. Voters could bypass prepackaged campaign propaganda by tapping the wealth of candidate information online. They could get around the pollsters by posing their own questions directly to candidates in electronic forums and volunteer to work for those they wanted to support at the push of a button. Such a structure would cost little to produce.

In short, the Internet, with its powers of electronic mobilization, has the potential to turn Americans into activists instead of passive political consumers targeted by television.

Internet campaigning begins The first great marker in the history of Internet campaigning - the 1998 campaign of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura - spoke to the potential for activism.

Ventura and his Webmaster, Phil Madsen, said they could not have won the election without the Net. They had no campaign headquarters and only one paid staff member, but using their Web site and e-mail, organized an army of volunteers. In the final 72 hours of the campaign, during a drive through the state, Madsen used e-mail to set up rallies in towns along the way. More people showed up at their rallies, he claimed, than appeared at the events of their Republican and Democratic opponents, who together spent 30 times as much as the Ventura campaign.

The campaign's boasts about its use of the Net were widely disputed within the political establishment. But the story served to shift the thinking in many political circles. Whereas once the Internet was viewed only as an extension of TV - which persuades voters by broadcasting messages - the experience of the Ventura campaign brought the potential for inexpensive mobilization into the spotlight.

Nevertheless, the new class of consultants who specialize in Internet political communication is still having trouble selling its services this year.

"People don't see it as something to invest in," says Phil Tajitsu Nash, president of Campaign Advantage, a Democratic consulting firm. "You're seeing a lot of people who are doing the minimum just to get along." Nash commonly encounters million-dollar campaigns whose managers don't want to spend more than $5,000 on the Net.

The problem, he says, is that the old-guard television consultants who run the campaigns are blocking the way.

"The TV people say they're so threatened, they don't want to spend anything on the Internet," Nash says.

This reaction comes as no surprise to the old hands in the business. Doug Bailey, a pioneering television consultant whose clients included former President Gerald Ford, says, "If I were in the consulting business now, I could not in good conscience tell a campaign that has limited dollars to spend an extraordinary amount of money on the Internet." Consultants, he says, "are not saying to themselves, 'This is a new medium. How can we provide content in new ways?' "

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Ben Green, Internet strategist for the campaign of Vice President Al Gore, says the lessons of using the Internet in this year's campaigns will not be clear until the election is over. "For us, this is still an unfolding story," he says. "The story will be known in the days after the election in the battleground states. You really look at who won, and why did they win, and how much of a role did the Internet play in that. We're just getting warmed up."

Bailey, for all his skepticism about the Net's value, is deeply involved in developing models for its use. He is leading a nonprofit project called FreedomChannel.com, which delivers video-on-demand of candidates' positions on issues. To participate, candidates are not permitted to use marching bands or any other television gimmicks; they must simply speak into the camera about their ideas. Bailey's goal is to create positive standards for the use of video in politics online.

"I don't know of any studies or great theories about the impact that television would have on politics," he says.

"I think television just grew willy-nilly." With TV, he says, "it might have been better if someone had paused at the outset. Do we have any excuse for not recognizing now that we're heading into a whole new world?"

Learning From Mistakes

The idea that the mistakes of television could be avoided with the new medium of the Net has recurred among Internet pioneers. In the six years since the first online political experiments, a steady refrain has emerged among those who hoped the Internet would improve American civic life: Be careful. Don't blow it. This could be our last chance. They carried that refrain through threats of political spamming in 1998, through fears of federal regulation in 1999 and into the emergence of commercial political Web sites this year.

Political spamming was largely put to rest by market forces. In a 1998 high-profile case, Robert Barnes, a young consultant in San Francisco, proposed to send unsolicited e-mail promoting a slate of Democratic candidates. He wanted to target voters who had sent e-mail to campaign Web sites. Internet activists quickly raised the concern that such a mailing would cause voters to hate politics on the Internet as they hated politics on television. The incident attracted such negative publicity that the candidates begged Barnes not to send the e-mail. Since then, the threat of bad publicity has largely deterred campaigns from sending such mailings.

In 1999, the focus turned to the Federal Election Commission, which interprets and enforces election laws. The commission issued an opinion in late 1998 that proved extremely unpopular: A supporter of a candidate in Connecticut who built a Web site was to be forced, if he or she spent enough money, to register with the commission and report expenditures.

With that decision, the commission demonstrated it was equating the Internet with TV and the issue groups that raise millions of dollars to pay for ads advocating the election or defeat of candidates. After an onslaught of publicity that emphasized how such an approach could discourage individuals from expressing political opinions online, the commission took a softer stance toward the Net.

The attention of many Internet activists has now turned to commercial political Web sites. Their fears that Internet start-ups could create an environment similar to TV, where only the highest bidders appear, gained some credence this spring. Start-up Voter.com asked the FEC to consider whether candidates should be required to pay for space on commercial Web sites. Some companies offer candidates the space free; Voter asks campaigns to pay for it. In response to criticism that such an approach could run counter to the concept that any campaign can have a platform on the Net at little cost, Voter lawyer Cleta Mitchell said, "How is it any different with television? How is it any different from radio? This doesn't reduce the amount of money in politics. Somebody has to produce these sites. These are multijillion-dollar operations."

Mitchell's sentiment troubles those who have viewed the Internet as a tool for reform. Richard Kimball, director of Project Vote Smart, who recently testified at a hearing held by the Democracy Online Project in Washington, said that "to put such power in the hands of commercial interests, and expect everlasting benevolence, is to expect something that has never been nor ever will be."

On the other hand, some argue that commercial sites have nothing to gain by showing favoritism to candidates.

"As a business model, if we're going to draw viewers to the site, we have to be credible," says Tracy Westen, chairman of the commercial site Grassroots.com. The company's model depends on advertising, and it does not charge candidates to post basic information. "Anyone that wants to get in this on a very large scale would be crazy to tilt toward one party or candidate," Westen says. "There's no incentive for us to do it."

Westen helped engineer an unusual effort in Web politics. Before Grassroots, he served as president of the Democracy Network, a pioneering nonprofit site that collected candidates' positions on issues. Early this year, the Democracy Network was sold to Grassroots. Westen says the change was necessary because foundation grants that had supported the endeavor had dried up.

In fact, ask anyone in the field of nonprofit political sites about the availability of grants, and they'll tell you the well is nearly dry.

Backers such as the Markle Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts have, in past years, given millions of dollars to nonprofit groups that present political information online. While foundations are still pouring money into developing public interest uses of the Internet, some have shifted their focus.

Sean Treglia, program officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that most grant requests these days ask for money to develop Web sites. But in an environment in which it takes six months to execute a grant, he questions whether funding Web sites is the best approach. "The foundation world can't keep up with the speed of the technology world out there," he says. Consequently, his interest is moving toward projects that set standards for the use of the Internet in politics. To that end, the foundation has become a backer of FreedomChannel, as well as supporting scholarly research at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Democracy Online Project at George Washington University.

"To get guidelines out is easier than to try to keep up with technology," Treglia says. In doing so, the foundation's goal remains consistent with the days when it was mostly backing nonprofit Web sites. "We think that mistakes were made early on when radio and television were developed," he says. "We can go back and have a second chance."


unknown, July 3, 2000, ZD Inc

Copyright © 2000, Individual.com, Inc.. All rights reserved.