Thursday, October 14, 2004
5:00 - 6:45 p.m.
20 Ames Street
claimed that the emergence of the Internet and the multiplication
of television channels as a result of cable and satellite technologies
have fundamentally altered American politics. The current presidential
campaign may offer a decisive test of this thesis. How are new
technologies enabling new forms of fundraising and political
activism? What is the significance of the fact that Fox News,
a cable network, drew more viewers of the Republican National
Convention than the traditional networks? What has been the
impact of such Internet-based groups as MoveOn and TrueMajority?
Are these developments helpful to the ideal of an informed and
engaged civic society? Or do they encourage polarization and
the politics of slander and smear? These and related questions
will be considered in two pre-election Forums in October.
by the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT with support from
the Political Science Department and MIT Votes.
Jenkins is the John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities
and director of Comparative
Media Studies at MIT.
LoPorto is a senior creative consultant for viral internet
marketing campaigns, working with clients such as TrueMajority.org.
Before starting the QuantumLight
Internet marketing firm, LoPorto developed multi-player gaming
at Microsoft Research.
Trippi was the national campaign manager for Howard
Dean's 2004 campaign and is the author of The
Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
is an edited summary, not a complete transcript]
Jenkins spoke about the political role of the Internet in
the 2000 election, citing online debates, the Nader vote-swap,
and the impact of computer modeling on disputes about election
results. He traced the development of media-savvy presidential
candidates beginning with Reagan, through Buchanan, Perot and
Clinton. Referring to an on-screen image of Clinton playing
the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show during the 1992
campaign, Jenkins noted that while that image is memorable,
few Americans recall that Clinton's extended discussion of civil
rights and minority issues with the black host of this talk
show reached millions of African-American voters and demonstrated
Clinton's understanding of the way in which TV had begun to
change from a mass medium to one in which programming reached
Howard Dean campaign, Jenkins said, exploited the Internet with
greater sophistication and effectiveness than any previous campaign.
One irony of the Dean campaign was that while it raised so much
money on the Internet, it spent so much of that money on broadcast
media, where Dean was an ineffective figure. This contradiction
came to a head in Dean's famous Iowa "I have a scream"
to 2004, Jenkins identified a darker side of the potential of
the Internet in politics. He directed the audience's attention
to a graphic of the web site GOP.com from the day John Edwards
was announced as Kerry's running mate. The site featured hostile
talking points on Edwards, which were quickly picked up by conservative
talk radio. Jenkins calls this instantaneous response "do
it yourself spin." He also played attack videos from both
the DNC and the RNC web sites, which had been prepared and posted
within hours of Tuesday night's debate between the candidates.
He noted that these messages spread virally, and that ideas
and talking points catch on across the country in almost real
time. The net is thus an environment that may intensify polarization
and the dissemination of bias and distortion.
LoPorto also stressed the current polarization of American
political culture and the absence of diversity in online discussion
groups. The Forum audience, he speculated, was probably similar
to a discussion group; he would be surprised if there were any
Bush supporters in attendance. This audience of people from
MIT and Cambridge was certain to be very different from an audience
for a similar event in the Bible belt or an evangelical community.
cited the book Cultural
Creatives, and introduced the concept of psychographics
-- key beliefs and attitudes that people identify with strongly,
and that increasingly are becoming targets of marketing campaigns.
The decline in diversity, in audiences such as those for the
old broadcast networks who might have sharply different political
or moral attitudes, is a notable feature of most media today,
and is particularly true of cyberspace. Online, he said, you
can find communities in which everyone agrees with all others
in the group. Psychographic profiling allows groups to reach
are cerebral, mental, LoPorto claimed, and lack the physical
elements that are present when people meet in real time and
real spaces. When they go online the so-called "cultural
creatives" can feel connected to people like them, whereas
in the physical world they often feel isolated.
for online political organizing is figuring out how to find
the particular people who would most identify with your chosen
cause. Viral marketing is the best strategy for this. For example,
TrueMajority sends out issue-based emails and if people identify
with them they will forward these messages to their friends
and families. If an issue is considered to be important by the
email's recipients, TrueMajority will see a spike in membership
sign-ups. If the issue doesn't resonate, fewer people sign up.
takes this into account when deciding what issues embrace. The
organization sends out one to two emails per week on various
issues - but no more because members will unsubscribe if they
feel inundated. An example of a successful campaign would be
spreading the idea for candlelight vigils to protest the Iraq
War. Viral ideas work if they are or can become widely shared.
An idea will only spread if it resonates with people's personal
beliefs. Another appeal that worked well for TrueMajority was
a spoof of The Apprentice that showed Donald Trump "firing"
President Bush. This message worked in part because it tapped
into widely-recognized conventions that had been established
by a popular TV show and also because it crystallized the desire
of millions to defeat the President in this election. This combination
of the mass media and the powers of the viral Internet was particularly
effective, LoPorto concluded.
Trippi spoke the power of the Internet to generate communities
of interest and belief. He cited an experience from 1995 in
which he was participating in a discussion group on the Motley
Fool web site devoted to the products of the game company THQ.
Some people logged on to this discussion board to help them
with investment decisions; others logged on because they were
interested in X-Box or game station games. The posts from a
THQ employee, David Haines, were widely trusted and sought out
for their insight into the company and its products. Once, when
his posts stopped for nearly a week, many users became upset
and posted inquiries about him. It turned out his absence had
been caused by the birth of his first son. Over nearly two years
details about Hanes' personal life -- the birth of his second
child, notes about his pets, about his misadventures in sports
-- came to be part of the implicit lore of this discussion board.
Hanes died suddenly of a heart attack at 31, and the announcement
of his death generated thousands of eulogies that were posted
to the discussion board. It was like "witnessing a funeral
on the Internet," Trippi said. Next, users created a fund
for the education of Haines' children.
point for Trippi was that this community had formed itself.
THQ had no real idea of its existence; the discussion group
was only one of thousands on the Motley Fool site. "This
community came together on its own and built itself," Trippi
said. This experience inspired Trippi to mobilize the community-building
power of the Internet in the Howard Dean campaign for President.
deep down, every American -- I don't care what their psycho-graphic
is -- all of us, want to do something for the common good,"
Trippi said. The political and corporate leadership treats the
American people as consumers, not citizens. But the Internet
allows citizens to connect and organize on their own.
campaign, Trippi said, got people to not only raise money and
to talk, but to be active in their communities - participating
in candlelight vigils, Meetups, and the Dean Corps, a movement
in which supporters wearing Dean T-shirts engaged in communal
clean-ups and related activities.
he does not believe we are living in an information age. Instead,
he said, the technologies that enable the spread of information
distribute power. This power can be mobilized by ordinary citizens,
by the grassroots, he explained, and added, "The power
is rising from the bottom." Trippi cited Napster as an
example of how this grassroots power forced changes at the top:
in Napster's case, the change was forced in the music industry.
Politically, Trippi said, power today can originate with people
and can rise from the bottom, from those without political office
or official positions.
Thorburn, MIT Communications Forum director: Joe Trippi,
can you be more specific about how the Dean campaign used the
The campaign was made up of two groups: one believed using the
web was crazy; the other was small and believed we could really
change things, using the Internet to do it. It took me two to
three weeks of fighting tooth and nail just to get the Meetup
icon on our website. The moment that Dean got it was at the
March 5, 2003 Meetup. Early on, we thought only a few hundred
people nationwide would participate. By March, it was 10,000
people. I had the idea of having the governor show up unexpectedly
at a Meetup in the city where he was campaigning. The scheduler
didn't want to do it, but I finally got it on the schedule.
Just in case nobody had shown up, I went to the venue before
Dean. The cab pulled over and my jaw dropped - it was at a restaurant
and there were people coming out the doors. The fire marshal
had closed the place because there were too many people. The
governor showed up and that was it. He saw that people had done
this all themselves. All we had done was put up a thing on our
website, and they didn't even know Dean was coming. And it was
like that all over the country.
two examples of how this happens: At one point we put up some
downloadable signs on the site for people to take and print
out. Three minutes later, we got an email from someone: "You
forgot Puerto Rico." We realized we had, and quickly added
a Puerto Rico sign. We instantly received eight email thank
yous from Puerto Rico. Then the ninth thank you was from London,
but this person pointed out there were a lot of Americans abroad
and we shouldn't forget them either. This kind of thing happened
every day in the Dean campaign. It gave people a sense of ownership
in the campaign.
and Kerry campaigns don't realize that they gain, not lose,
by opening up a little bit. Second example: we were trying to
raise a million dollars over four days on the Internet, and
have it done by the time Howard Dean finished his cross-country
campaign tour and arrived in Bryant Park in New York. We were
freaking out because Dean was on his way to New York, and we
only had $950,000. We stopped at a deli. Someone called to tell
me that people on blogs would raise the final $50,000 if Dean
would get up on stage with a red bat and say, "You did
it." By 10:00 p.m. we had raised 1.3 million dollars. Dean
was introduced, and goes on stage. CNN and C-SPAN were all there
live. Dean raises the bat and says "You did it!" All
the people there sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
And everyone knew that some guy in Tucson had made it happen,
and the presidential candidate had said "You did it."
That's the sense of ownership that people had in the Dean campaign.
for Trippi: In your book, you talk about the way appearances
on NPR would generate immediate online contributions. Could
you talk about which traditional media picked up your material
We realized that when we spoke on Inside Politics on
CNN, $40,000 would come in. I remember that when we were on
NPR, $30,000 would come in. When we were in USA Today,
$300,000 would come in. So of course you use that mainstream
media because it works. We would try any way we possibly could
to get the host to mention the Dean for America web site address.
comment: Top-down information from the mainstream media
can still trump grass roots information; there are some items
I read first in blogs that I wouldn't have remembered if I hadn't
then seen them on television - like Dean's scream. The mainstream
media replayed the scream so often it seemed to bury the candidate.
I disagree - the scream wasn't the beginning of the end, it
was the end of the end. Human beings are flawed, and Howard
Dean had never run for office in his life. Vermont Governor
Snelling died cleaning his pool, and Dean became governor. He
did great things, and the Republicans couldn't get a serious
candidate to run against him.
decided that the first contested race of his life was going
to be for President of the United States of America. And so
he was going to make lots of rookie mistakes. For example, he
didn't have foreign policy on his resume. At one point he told
some old guy in Iowa, "Sit down, you've had your say, now
it's my turn." That got played over and over in Iowa before
the caucus. No one who had ever done politics before was going
to work on Howard Dean's campaign - except for me.
got a rookie racecar driver, me, and a bunch of 20-year-old
kids. That was all rolled up in this - these kids were great,
but we just unraveled. The news wasn't that we failed, but that
we did what we did. The only reason we existed was because of
what had been possible using the Net. It worked pretty well,
but in the end you still have to deal with real politics, and
neither our candidate nor our team was prepared for that. Howard
Dean showed amazing courage, and so did those kids. You haven't
seen the end of the Dean campaign. Twenty to thirty years from
now you're going to see those same kids running for Congress
with a new view of community.
I have to say I'm a Deaniac, and I would like Joe Trippi to
comment on the difference between the Dean for America site
and the John Kerry site.
Most politics is still top-down, community control. It worked
in the primaries, and it's still working for them. The other
side of that is the Kerry campaign doesn't want volunteers.
Kerry could have embraced that energy, by refusing public funding
and taxpayer money. If he had done that, it would have moved
the Internet from 1950 to 2004, just like that. All the other
progressive groups that are organized online would have come
thundering in, and I don't think you could have stopped it.
He should have said, "If you join my cause you're not just
going to change presidents, you're going to change the system."
I told this to the Kerry campaign, but they didn't want to do
Isn't there a missing element in Joe Trippi's account of the
Dean phenomenon? Isn't it true that the passion of his supporters
was grounded in their opposition to the invasion of Iraq and
the Bush principle of pre-emptive war? Garret, you've stressed
the role of belief in viral marketing. What role did belief,
political commitments, play in the primary, and especially in
the way in which other candidates eventually embraced Dean's
position on the war?
The interesting thing about belief is there is belief about
belief. Dean was the only candidate who came out against the
war. So if you were against the war you identified with Dean.
Kucinich was out against the war before Dean - but he wasn't
savvy enough to get people to believe in him as a viable candidate.
Kucinich really didn't understand the media. He showed up at
a radio interview with visual aids.
Dean knew there was a lot of belief against the war and if he
came out against the war then he would get all those people.
Instantaneous response and fact checking of debates is great
but the only people reading those blogs are people already on
that side. What happens to a sense of objectivity or truth in
what is really going on with the candidates, what their positions
are, their record and so forth?
I think you're picking up on the darker side; I was excited
about the power of the Net and its use in politics when people
were for something, but now people are against something. There
are attempts to deflate participation on the other side, trying
to take down communities instead of build them. A friend of
mine recently was surprised when I told him I had a Republican
friend. The partisan attack mode has been introduced into families,
friendships, dorm rooms - it's a dark side, and we've got to
own up to the fact that the Internet has a dark side.
The dark side has been there from the beginning. Thomas Jefferson's
political opponents tried to defeat him by announcing that he
was dead! We're in a culture where negative works: you realize
the only way to beat the other guy is to make his negative ratings
go higher than yours. The Net is just an extension of that political
reality. If John Kerry had done what I suggested, I think we
would be having a more positive, uplifting debate on our democracy
and how people participate in it.
Since the 1950s, the Democrat and Republican parties have flipped
regarding what they stand for. How much of that is due to media
and media technologies and how much of it is just that people
The 60s represented a new kind of honesty, a generation looking
for a new kind of truth. And then they got scared away, probably
by the assassination of all of their heroes. But today those
people are a huge voting group. And they're starting to realize
that. I think we're on the edge of a new kind of politics, with
more honesty, and more sensitive to deception.
Technologies emerge when people are ready to use them, and they
respond to a lack in our culture.
The New York Times reported earlier this week that the
Bush campaign was working with Catholic bishops to litmus test
candidates: that it's a sin to vote for a candidate who would
vote pro-choice or for stem cell research. Reactions?
It's top-down. I happen to be Catholic, but I don't take that
stuff seriously. What Bush can do by using sound bites is hijack
an entire religion and force a religion to endorse or not endorse
in not-so-subtle ways. More abortions have happened under the
Bush administration than in any other. Why? Maybe people are
more desperate, and we're just not looking at the problem the
What's the first thing that Internet people should be doing
right now to get ready for using the Internet in governing in
2005 and 2006?
I think if Kerry gets elected and he puts through a health care
bill, people online are already organized around that issue.
Pulling people together around that issue will be interesting.
I think we've got to break out of this partisan screaming at
each other, and come together as a community, go to blogs you
don't even agree with, and say if we come together, we can have
an impact together: don't let the lobbyists do this. We're here
together, and let's move the agenda forward in this country.