Monday, September 10, 2007

The Virtual Body Politic

The fallout surrounding the recent Republican candidate's debate on Fox News provides good examples of the power -- and the impotence -- of the Internet.

Texas congressman Ron Paul has an active following, who have repreatedly called Fox News (and the other big media) to task for what they see as attempts to marginalize their candidate. Now, this post isn't about Ron Paul per se, but rather the Internet has changed the dynamics of public political discourse.

Immediately after the second round of debates on Fox news, the network held a text message straw poll, which Ron Paul won by 33%. Hannity and Combs immediately dismissed the results as skewed, joking that Ron Paul fanboys were repeatedly speed dialing and stuffing the ballot box.

In the pre-Internet days, the general public's impression of the debate and its outcome would have relied on two basic sources of information:

  1. Viewing the debate itself (something only a minority of people ever do)
  2. Relying on news reports and analysis in the days following the event for a summary recap and highlights.

And if a candidate's supporters cried "Fowl!" then it would be their obviously biased word against the soundbites playing on air.

Now, however, those supporters can do more than just complain. Paul supporters have outlined their mistreatment of their candidate -- and supported their arguments with video from the debate illustrating their points.

Without any evidence, a claim that the moderator deliberately mocked one candidate while fawning over another sounds like sour grapes. When one produces the video documenting the behavior, the case becomes more compelling.

Fox News claimed their poll results were skewed by a minority voting repeatedly. Paul supporters supply images and video documenting their assertion that repeat voting was impossible, and therefore the results are valid.

The important point here isn't what happened at the debate. It's that you can view the evidence (here's but one source) and judge for yourself. You don't have to rely on either the soundbites of the mainstream media, nor the claims of a candidates supporters. The information sources are being made freely available for you to examine and decide.

This is one of the real strengths of the Internet.

In order to access all of this information, though, you have to be online.

And that's the real weakness of the Internet.

Folks who never go online will form their opinions as they have in the past, relying on the two options mentioned above. And those within the digital subdivision who only marginally use the Internet (the ones just use email to forward jokes and urban legends) will be completely oblivious to this as well.

If you're on the right side of the digital subdivision, the source information's pretty easy to find.

If you're not, then somebody else will report and decide for you.

- Ralph

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