Monday, February 04, 2008

The Virtual Body Politic

Someone who only follows the presidential election through mainstream media (primarily TV news) will form an impression radically different than someone who uses the Internet as their primary news source. I've been looking at election coverage both online and off, and sometimes it seems as if I'm reading about events in two parallel universes. And perhaps I am.

The differences have been most striking on the Republican side. Those who follow mainstream news saw Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee battle it out, with John McCain eventually coming up from behind (as of this writing). Rudi Guiliani always seemed like a credible candidate, as did Fred Thompson.

Following the process online yielded a different impression -- especially through sites such as Digg, where the candidates' supporters can raise awareness by submitting and voting for stories to get them to the top of the list.

In the online world, it's all been about Ron Paul. His supporters, in addition to being very vocal, have also been very active. And they've had to be. Mainstream media often ignored Paul. His supporters continually post documentation of deliberate marginalization, both among reporters and the Republican party itself.

Ron Paul leads the pack in terms of MySpace and Facebook friends, as well as the Digg the Candidates site. None of the other Republican candidates come close to Paul. Guiliani and Thompson were always at the bottom of the heap.

On the Democratic side, the mainstream media has Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a dead heat. Online, it's no contest -- it's Obama by a wide margin. He has ten times the friends on Digg, and wide leads over Clinton on Facebook and MySpace.

Obama is the candidate that "gets' the Internet. He supported net neutrality, which made him hugely popular with the online community. The announcement went almost unreported in the mainstream media -- which is hardly surprising as they have yet to really report on the issue of net neutrality itself. The average person watching TV news has never heard of one of the Internet's major hot button issues.

Of course, what matters are votes. If Ron Paul is so popular (according to the web), then why isn't he leading in delegates? If Obama's the clear choice online, then why hasn't he put this contest away?

I think it's because 50% of the people still live on the other side of the digital divide. And a good many of those on this side use the Internet only to forward ancient jokes and urban myths to their friends -- not as a source of information.

And therein lies the difficulty. While the Internet has made the political process transparent in many ways and leveled the playing field for the candidates, this has only come to pass online. There's been little spillover into the non-digital world.

To get out the vote, campaigners still have to connect with the electorate. In the real world. Face to face. Not just pixel to pixel. Can these new political bases rising online make the transition? This will be an interesting election.

- Ralph

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