New Media, Old Politics?

Thursday, October 14, 2004
5:00 - 6:45 p.m.

Bartos Theater
20 Ames Street


Many have 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.

Co-sponsored by the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT with support from the Political Science Department and MIT Votes.


Henry Jenkins is the John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities and director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT.

Garret LoPorto is a senior creative consultant for viral internet marketing campaigns, working with clients such as Before starting the QuantumLight Internet marketing firm, LoPorto developed multi-player gaming at Microsoft Research.

Joe Trippi was the national campaign manager for Howard Dean's 2004 campaign and is the author of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.


[This is an edited summary, not a complete transcript]

Henry 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 particular subcultures.

The 2003 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" speech.

Moving forward 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 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.

Garret 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.

LePorto 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 such communities.

Online interactions 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.

The challenge 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.

True Majority 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.

Joe 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.

The crucial 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.

"Basically, 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.

The Dean 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.

Trippi said 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.


David Thorburn, MIT Communications Forum director: Joe Trippi, can you be more specific about how the Dean campaign used the Internet?

Trippi: 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.

Here are 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.

The Bush 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.

Question 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 most quickly?

Trippi: 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.

Audience 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.

Trippi: 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.

Howard Dean 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.

So you've 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.

Question: 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.

Trippi: 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 that.

Thorburn: 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?

LoPorto: 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.

Jenkins: Kucinich really didn't understand the media. He showed up at a radio interview with visual aids.

LoPorto: 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.

Question: 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?

Jenkins: 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.

Trippi: 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.

Question: 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 changed?

LoPorto: 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.

Jenkins: Technologies emerge when people are ready to use them, and they respond to a lack in our culture.

Question: 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?

LoPorto: 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 right way.

Question: 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?

Trippi: 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.

--Joellen Easton