Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Media in German and U.S. Campaigns

I have long thought that U.S. President Barack Obama has been committing one of cardinal sins of political life--actually believing his own rhetoric. And the degree to which much of the American and global media aid him in this process, taking what he says as the gospel truth, never ceases to amaze me. One such belief is Obama's "magisterial" use of the Internet and social networking sites in particular, largely credited with handing him victory last year.

This belief seems to be the standard to which the German parties and politicians are held--in a pseudo Marxist "the more advanced country shows the less advanced a glimpse of the future." Certainly, this is the gist of a recent Washington Post article as well as blog posts here and elsewhere about the German "Internet Manifesto." Conventional wisdom is that Americans have started to exploit fully the potential of Internet connectivity and the Germans--as in so many other areas--are woefully behind the curve. Despite the high overall number of Germans using the Internet, the number using it for political purposes is quite low. (Although I don't understand why all new media attention is focused on the Internet and no one ever mentions the much greater use of cell phones in Germany and Europe compared to the United States). Moreover, when Germans do go on-line they are overwhelmingly getting information from the mainstream media or the parties' own sites. Only very few are using social network applications to disseminate information or their own opinions.

But what was the reality in the 2008 U.S. election campaign? According to a Pew Study, 18% of Internet users actively used an online forum; 83% in the 18-24 age group had a social networking profile and 2/3 of such individuals engaged in political activity; 1/3 Internet users forwarded political content to others. Interestingly, McCain supporters were more likely to go on-line, but as expected, Obama supporters were more likely to use the potential of social networking, and, all importantly, were more likely to donate money on-line.

So far, conventional wisdom is supported--the Obama campaign exploited the potential of the Internet especially for fundraising purposes and within the youngest political cohorts. Nevertheless, there are several counterpoints.

* Despite perceptions, there was a (slight) decline in the number of eligible voters who actually voted in 2008 compared to 2004 (See USA Today). Although the overall number of voters increased by 5 million, they were almost all minorities, especially African Americans. And, according to Pew, only 8% of all political internet users are African Americans (11% of the population). Thus, it is unclear that the Obama campaign's use of the Internet was crucial in motivating minority voters to go to the polls.

* Only 49% (up from 47% in 2004) of the much ballyhooed 18-24 age group voted. Under-30 voters (2:1 for Obama) were not critical to the result, except arguably in North Carolina and Indiana.

* Finally, all such studies have shown that political users of the Internet rapidly are moving away from websites with no point of view to those that reinforce their own political predisposition--preaching to the converted.

In my view, these findings make the parallels or lessons for German campaigns much less valid. I might even go so far to say that current U.S. trends are far from welcome or desirable. First, the youthful groups of voters (in both countries) most likely to use social networking sites are the least likely to vote and are not decisive for outcomes. Second, increased political Internet use is exacerbating political polarization and general nastiness. Indeed, there are real advantages to the much-derided "mainstream media" with real journalistic professionals maintaining their gatekeeping role and making efforts to achieve balance.

Third, I have not even mentioned the whole debate regarding "grassroots" versus "astroturf"--and the mounting evidence that the Obama campaign conveyed the illusion of bottom-up participation, but actually rather strongly controlled the message and used such technologies as another way of exerting top-down influence. If this is indeed the case, then the German parties' usage of the Internet is already up to "advanced" standards. Finally, the one real advantage that Obama had with the Internet--fundraising--is much, much less important in Germany in light of the generous public financing regime. In the U.S., the Internet has made the collection of money much easier and is helping to exacerbate the campaign finance inflation rate.

Thus, we ought to treat "Internet Manifestos" with a hefty dose of skepticism. At the least, we ought to subject assertions--that the Internet was the secret to Obama's success and that the anachronistic Germans should get with it--to real scrutiny. Perhaps the Internet is not the re-democratizing panacea that its acolytes have made it seem. Maybe there are advantages to a more old-school media approach and campaign style that the German parties still embody.

--Eric Langenbacher

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