The videos president-elect Barack Obama’s campaign team loaded for free onto YouTube, the Internet site, were watched for a remarkable 14.5 million hours, political consultant Joe Trippi noted at last week’s Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco (itself viewable on the web).
Trippi, who pioneered the use of the web for Democrat John Dean’s almost successful insurgency in 2004, added that to access the same viewership on old-fangled television would have cost $47 million — half the total kitty Obama’s Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, received in public funding for his campaign (Obama rejected public funding to avoid the spending limits on which it is conditioned).
Speaking on the same panel, Arianna Huffington, founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post – America’s Thoughtleader.co.za – said bluntly: “Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the (Democratic) nominee.”
Obama’s 40 minute speech on race relations which successfully doused the firestorm over his relationship with the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright has so far been watched 6.7 million times on YouTube. Had not so many people been able to watch the speech in its entirety, unfiltered by the media, Senator Hillary Clinton might now be preparing for her inauguration.
Some 34 million votes were cast in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. Overall Obama received just 150 000 more of them than his opponent. In the general election overall margin was 8.3 million votes out of 130 million cast. One of five of the total belonged to people under 30 – members of the wired generation. Two thirds of them picked Obama.
Team Obama not only used the Internet more effectively than its rivals to get out his message. It trounced them in exploiting the technology to raise funds and organise. My wife was one of the millions who went online to donate to the Obama campaign during the primary season. The campaign was in constant touch by email thereafter to make sure we were in the loop on every opportunity to attend a rally, man a phone bank or go knocking on doors within driving distance.
San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, was on the panel with Trippi and Huffington. “Near where we’re sitting,” he said, “there are hundreds of thousands of people who have no idea what we are talking about”. These were people who could not afford computers or high-speed Internet access. Would the increasing webification of politics exclude them? The same issue obviously arises in South Africa.
Trippi thought not. First, you didn’t need to contact everyone directly. He had been able to pull together rallies of 3 000 or more by sending out a few hundred emails. Word of mouth did the rest. Second, people were increasingly able to access the Internet on cell phones, which were ubiquitous. Trippi was involved in the last Nigerian election. He arranged for voters to receive text messages that read “You hold the torch of democracy in your hands.”
Though his campaign website, Obama generated an email database of more than 10 million supporters, 3.2 million of whom contributed money. His advisers are looking at ways to use this list to help him govern. Trippi is pushing for the new White House to convert the database into a Facebook-like social network to mobilize citizens behind the president’s agenda.
“I think this is going to be one of the most powerful presidencies we’ve seen since (Franklin Roosevelt), and maybe even more powerful,” he said. “Even the best presidents have never has a way to connects directly with millions of Americans – Obama will have that”. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh agrees, and is appalled. “Here comes the Internet onslaught.”
Theoretically, the White House could “geo-target” Internet ads to pop up on screens in the districts of Congressmen in need of nudging on specific issues. But the web could also be a double sword. The Obama team may have used it brilliantly, but that doesn’t mean others won’t learn from them. And what happens if his friends, in Facebook parlance, decide they don’t like his middle way approach to governing? Could he become a prisoner of his own social network?