With this presidential election, it’s become abundantly clear that the Internet and politics were made for each other. For better or worse, campaigns start on-line – you’re not in the race until you’ve got a website – and they’re going to end on-line as well.
So what happens in the next 18 months, the real dawn of this new era, will set practices that determine how campaigns raise and spend money in the years to come. Too bad it won’t be the good behavior we remember. Why? Well, the on-line world is prime for a big juicy campaign finance scandal and Monday’s Supreme Court ruling loosening the restrictions on campaign ads just nudged that process along.
The ingredients are all at hand: tons of money, out-sized expectations, very little oversight and blatant opportunism. And it’s the Democrats who are going to get hurt this time. Why? Well, they’re the party that keeps trying to keep money out of politics. And some of the biggest mouths in the self-styled “blogosphere” – the ones who aren’t afraid to advertise the link between their affiliations and their bank accounts – are Democrats.
They are taking advantage of an interesting state of affairs. As long as concerned “individuals” are writing the checks to fund on-line activity and as long as bloggers and their backers convince themselves that the new on-line political world is made up of amateurs and concerned citizens, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. There are no disclaimers required on-line (“Paid for by …”), there are no spending caps, no need to tell the Federal Elections Commission who you are or exactly what you’re doing as long as you maintain “plausible deniability” and act alone.
Bloggers like to think of themselves as concerned individuals, all working independently for a common goal. That’s a nice bit of self-styling and it may have been true four years ago, for about 10 minutes, until a political consultant named Joe Trippi figured out what it meant to have an on-line guy on staff. Today, the “blogosphere” is not a concerned cadre of amateur writers and analysts, particularly when it comes to politics. It is a network of political operatives, analysts and organizers who work together – on both sides of the party divide – to spread their message. Some are paid by the campaigns, some are not. Some really are volunteers but the big sites – the ones that charge almost $10,000 a week for their ads – are political businesses. And it’s time to stop pretending otherwise.
During the past two elections cycles, on-line activism has become organized, calculated and well-crafted; its messages and goals are integrated into overall campaign strategy and efforts and messaging are coordinated. Pretty much every Democratic or Progressive blogger, for instance, can log-on to Townhouse, a private and exclusive – no detractors allowed! – site that alerts the party faithful to that day’s message. Ironically, a number of those most active on Townhouse – specifically Markos Moulitsas, founder of the very popular DailyKos – spend a great deal of time decrying the Republican party’s hold on financing and conservatives’ hold on political messaging. It’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
The rise of bloggers’ political power is strictly the result of their potential for unregulated, unsupervised, on-line mischief made possible by the Federal Election Commission’s decision to cover almost all on-line writing with a get-out-of-jail-free card, otherwise known as the “media exemption.” An “independent” blogger is not considered a political entity subject to regulation by the commission, and therefore does not have to report spending, income or other financial details. This ruling has had a straightforward effect: It turned blog advertising into “walking around money” – the 21st century equivalent of the payments, coerced or otherwise, political campaigns make to powerful on-line community organizers.
This is no exaggeration. Look at the outrage that erupted when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign made ad buys on sites not in sympathy to her views or those of other Democrats; she was asked to make it up to those she snubbed.
“Clinton Web Chat: Where’s My Ad?” asked radio talk show host Taylor Marsh who went on to “remind” Sen. Clinton that “blogs are small businesses, too.” She continued: “…It’s not like her team doesn’t know I exist. I find it a little annoying that Clinton’s team thinks that people like me don’t merit advertisement, simply because our numbers don’t reach the one-hundred thousand mark. It’s a very telling strategic move that I find very disrespectful of small business owners who need the advertisement.” Marsh, a clever girl, went on to say that she’s supporting John Edwards because he supports her – he’s bought ads on her site.
This is a great example of why on-line has become the new home of the dirty trick. Its leaders are for sale. And they see absolutely nothing wrong in advertising that fact. Which will only mean more trouble on the way. Opinion that’s changed by payment is opinion that can be easily changed.
Now add two things that are only starting to catch on: video clips and affinity or social networking sites.
Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? It wasn’t a rag-tag bunch of ex-vets; it was a well-organized, well-funded campaign to discredit Sen. John Kerry. Now, imagine the Swift Boat vet’s allegations each turned into a separate 30-second on-line video, released anonymously and posted on YouTube, MySpace, Facebook with “episodes” strung out over a week or a month, publicized, reposted and excerpted by bloggers and you begin to get the idea. It will almost certainly happen. Why? Because it can. There’s nothing – absolutely nothing in the law today – to stop a well-heeled millionaire, a union sympathizer, a group of “concerned citizens” with a deep hatred for a particular candidate or cause from funding a series of negative or libelous YouTube videos.
And the line between what’s on-line and what’s in the “real” world is getting more porous all the time. The anti-Hillary parody of the “1984″ Apple Inc. advertisement done by a Sen. Barack Obama supporter was a taste of where we’re going. The 1984 parody was a hit on the web – sort of. But its real accomplishment was straddling the line between news and advocacy and getting TV time. The news value of the spot increased its impact and spread a well-targeted message about Clinton, one that, in another glimpse of things to come was crafted – supposedly – by a concerned individual working alone, outside the supervision of the political campaign that retained his consulting firm. (If this guy had been a Republican would anyone have believed that? Just asking.) Which, of course, is exactly why the Clinton campaign has decided to seed YouTube with ads by the former president endorsing his wife’s candidacy and other pro-Hillary video shorts. It’s an Internet polio vaccine that also, by the way, makes news.
In another ironic twist, the social networks where these sort of videos can quickly spread are encouraging political activity on-line. But they haven’t followed up on that ideal with anything that resembles practical thinking: editorial oversight or even policies on the timing of political ads and messaging. Again, the belief that the concerned individual should be allowed to speak has triumphed over the more cynical expectation – mine and that of many working in this election cycle – that political interests and campaign strategist can bend that idealism to their own ends.
And once there’s one really dirty trick campaign there will be several and once there are several, there will be cries for reform. The end will take us right back where we started with the Democrats and Republicans who fought so hard to make the government keep its hands off the Internet’s noble citizens begging for some oversight and disclosure of how money flows on-line. And they’ll get it. Finally. So when it’s too late – after the money’s been spent, the names called, the mud slung – we’ll be back where we started when the Internet was young: thinking all politics is dirty, run by opportunists and con artists. Only from now on we’ll be calling those folks “bloggers.”