Internet-Savvy Voters Shake Up Election

Sunday, 22 Jun 2008 10:26 PM

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SAN FRANCISCO - Videos shared on YouTube and blogs scrutinizing candidates are part of an Internet-age revolution shaking up the US presidential election and sweeping in a new political era.

"Voter-generated content" is credited with helping Senator Barack Obama secure the Democratic presidential nomination.

It is also said to be transforming the essence of US political campaigns and shifting power from party leaders and major media outlets to citizens with camera-enabled mobile phones or simple blogging tools.

"You're watching the battle between politics of the 20th Century and politics of the 21st Century," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum devoted to exploring how technology is changing politics.

"The battle of old-school or top-down political organizing and the one that believes in bottom-up. You are seeing a fundamental power shift; the Internet allows people to organize themselves."

Obama's announcement that he will rely on individual donors instead of public campaign funding is cited as proof of the Internet's political power.

More than 1.5 million people have donated cash to his effort.

"That shatters all records and has a lot to do with people being mobilized online, and mostly in the blogosphere," said Mother Jones magazine reporter Josh Harkinson, who tracks "digital democracy" and blogging.

"Weighing in, sharing your political views and donating money are much easier online than ever before."

Blogs keep people engaged and those who feel connected to campaigns are inclined to give money to influence outcomes, Harkinson said.

The rise of blogging and voter-posted videos also holds danger for candidates, whose every comment and move can be captured and shared online by anyone with a camera phone and basic Internet skills.

Gone are cozy relationships that might result in reporters giving candidates chances to retract or clarify embarrassing or controversial remarks.

"Bloggers have pressure on them to be controversial and different," said Kevin Wallsten, a California university political science professor writing a book on the role blogging plays in presidential politics.

"The new thing for candidates is you have to be on your game all the time. You can have a Macaca Moment or a Bittergate."

Bittergate refers to a controversy Obama was mired in after he referred to small town Pennsylvania residents as "bitter" people who "cling to guns and religion" during a private fundraising event in San Francisco.

A Huffington Post blogger posted the quote on the Internet.

Clinton's campaign took a hit when the same blogger posted audio recording of her ex-president husband, Bill Clinton, calling a magazine reporter a "scumbag" for writing an unflattering story about him.

US senator George Allen lost a re-election bid in 2006 after a video of him using the pejorative term "macaca" to refer to a man of Indian descent was posted on the Internet.

Obama had to save his campaign from disaster with a passionate speech on race reconciliation in America after the dissemination of an online video of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, condemning the nation in a fiery sermon.

"There are going to be more and more of these things, that is inevitable," Wallsten said. "A lot can end up in blogs."

Rasiej and others say the power of blogs is being eclipsed by the ease with which anyone can capture candidates on digital audio or video and post results on the Internet.

"The notion of voter-generated content is upending the entire political ecology," Rasiej told AFP.

The Internet teems with videos of Obama and supporters singing or speaking his praises.

"Obama is to web video as John F. Kennedy was to television," Harkinson said. "It really is that big of a revolution."

Presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his party have yet to show they are adapting to Internet-age politics as deftly as Obama.

"Republicans are frustrated that they can't get the party hierarchy to adapt fast enough," Rasiej said.

"The political establishment and mainstream press are only beginning to catch up with a new generation of political players who are creating powerful new ways for ordinary citizens to get involved."

© 1994-2008 Agence France-Presse

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