Insiders debate social media's influence on Election '08

Online media execs consider blogs, podcasts, and sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter the "wild card" in this fall's presidential election.

SANTA MONICA, Calif.--How are Twitter and Facebook changing the game for the 2008 presidential frontrunners? Online media executives say the answer will be pivotal to future campaigns, but that it won't come until November.

"Voter-generated content is the wild card of 2008," said Micah Sifry, co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum and the political site TechPresident.com. Sifry spoke here Monday night for the opening of Economics of Social Media 2008, a one-day conference. "The bottom line is that the campaigns have lost control."

Sifry, who was part of a panel of online media executives discussing social media and politics, was referring to the rise of sites like YouTube, Twitter , and Facebook since the 2004 elections. Newly armed with online pulpits, more citizens are using these sites to vocalize opinions through video, blogs, or podcasts, and to mobilize community efforts around the candidates. At the same time, the presidential candidates are taking advantage of social media sites to reach new audiences, raise money, and respond to voters in real time.

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"We're entering the age of mass participation in the making of a campaign and not just in the making of the result," Sifry said.

Betsy Morgan, the Huffington Post's CEO who joined the newly minted "Internet newspaper" just six months ago from CBS.com, said that the candidates have been much savvier about the way they use the Internet in this campaign. Presidential contender Barack Obama, for example, wrote an editorial exclusively for the Huffington Post and that message was presented on the front page in a way it would not have been in The New York Times.

"He got the message out in the way that he wanted," she said.

Despite the increasing power of the Internet to the campaign, the candidates are still spending most of their money on advertising with traditional media on 30-second commercials, she said. "There's still that feeling that that spending will get people out of their chairs," Morgan said.

It may take another political cycle for the ad dollars to follow the trends. Manuel Perez, senior supervising producer of CNN.com, said that Obama has shown that his "grassroots" efforts on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites has gone a long way to engage young voters. "That's a big change," Perez said.

Other media executives said what's different about this campaign is that people are contributing to a near real-time feedback loop through the Web that's changing how stories unfold.

"The networks that provide 'first to see' immediacy (in the news) will rise," said Leonard Brody, co-founder and CEO of NowPublic, a citizen journalist Web site that has more than 140,000 contributing writers.

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Chuck DeFeo agreed. DeFeo is vice president and general manager of Townhall.com, a conservative online community with more than 250 podcasts. "People (have the) ability to shape the narrative...and knock them off their talking points. We'll only see more of that."

Sifry said that Obama has defied the odds related to rival Hillary Clinton, who held the lead in the national polls last year, because of his grassroots efforts with social media, including on Twitter, Facebook, and MyBarackObama.com. He said that Obama appeals to a dominant constituency online of younger voters, as well as an upper-class, more intellectual voter. For that reason, he said, Obama has 1.5 million individual donors at this stage in his campaign, or about what George W. Bush had in November 2004. (DeFeo was quick to correct Sifry by saying that Bush had more like 1.6 million donors at that point.)

"After this political cycle, we won't see a campaign without a social network," said Sifry. "I think come fall, McCain will suffer because he doesn't have an organic social media effort or (what he has is) at least one-tenth the size of what the Democrats have now."

DeFeo countered that during Bush's presidential 2004 run, members of the campaign urged people to take action offline, rather than online, by working a phone bank or organizing a "walk the vote" campaign. Those actions presumably had more a direct correlation to the outcome at the polls.

"The last thing we wanted people to do was create a blog," said DeFeo, who worked on that campaign.

Still, he acknowledged that the 2008 campaign is different.

"This is truly an election that will be pivotal," DeFeo said. "We've yet to see how online social media will effect" voter turnout.

 

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