Obama and the Internet

I debated whether to write this post at all. Doing so means letting some of my political views show, and I wasn’t sure whether that would be appropriate for this blog. But in the long run it’s really about the industry we all work in to one degree or another, so here goes…

Like a large part of the American public I was celebrating Barack Obama’s victory last night. Nevertheless I don’t think his election was as inevitable as many people thought. John McCain could have won it. There are a plethora of reasons why he didn’t, but I want to comment on just one of the reasons McCain lost: The extraordinary number of attacks his campaign made on Obama’s character.

McCain and his running mate trotted out an arsenal of charges: Obama associates with criminals. He was steeped in the anti-American views of his Christian pastor. He pals around with terrorists. He advocated sex education for kindergarteners.  He’s a socialist. He’s a Marxist. He’s secretly a madrasa-trained Muslim. He’s not really an American citizen.

In the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, raising questions about his opponents’ character served George Bush’s campaigns well. But in this election – using many of the same people who engineered Bush’s victories – McCain’s strategy not only didn’t gain traction, it cost him votes. Each new attack on Obama’s character seemed to push McCain further down in the polls.

You could see the confusion in the McCain camp as this tactic, reliably proven in the past, backfired on them this time. Rather than back off and campaign solely on the issues that resonate with the American public, they doubled up on the attacks and made increasingly outrageous charges. And the more they did, the more the polls went against McCain.

So the question is: Why did the politics of personal destruction work in the past two campaigns, and fail so miserably in this campaign?

It’s because of the Internet.

The mainstream news media – particularly the television and cable news shows from which most Americans received their news – long ago abrogated their public responsibility. News organizations were bought up by large corporations that then made news a part of their entertainment divisions. Ratings became much more than investigative journalism.

The quest for ratings is the reason a celebrity scandal so easily and so often pushes coverage of truly important news, such as the ongoing tragedy in Darfur or the appalling dictatorship in Burma, completely off the agenda. Mainstream news organizations are no longer concerned with informing their audiences, only with entertaining them.

The quest for ratings is also the reason character attacks during political campaigns have, in the past, been so effective. Television and cable news organizations decree that most political issues will not hold their audience’s attention (they’re not entertaining). On the other hand, the insinuation of a personal flaw – the more outrageous the better – can obsess the mainstream media for days. And the more the slur is talked about, the more it gains legitimacy in the public consciousness.

The media’s abandonment of public responsibility in order to further their business is not just an irritation, though. It’s a genuine danger. One of the cornerstone ideologies of the founders of the American republic is that representative democracy can only work when the electorate is well informed. That’s why the press is the only industry of any kind that is protected under the Bill of Rights in our constitution.

And that’s where the Internet comes in. Since the last presidential election, people around the world have become far more adept at conducting research on the Internet. Coupled with the rise of the so-called “blogosphere,” information is getting to the public in greater volumes and at greater speed than has ever happened in human history. Certainly some of that information includes a vast array of half-truths, untruths, and loony conspiracy theories from both ends of the political spectrum. But the system is self-correcting: Whenever people are allowed the free exchange of information, misinformation is exposed.  

With more and more people turning to the immense resources of the Internet as an alternative to the pap being fed to them by the traditional media, the political tactic of character attacks – which depends on an easily manipulated, easily distracted news media – becomes less and less effective.

In the 2008 United States presidential election, attempts to propagate inaccurate and untrue rumors about the candidates were quickly researched, exposed, and discarded by the public. More than that, such exposure tended to blow back on the originating party: If the campaign’s staff is willing to lie to us about one thing, what else are they lying to us about?

The Internet as public political forum has contributed mightily to the election of Barack Obama here the United States. Its importance goes farther, however. As the Internet begins to touch all parts of the globe, and as the attempts of oppressive governments to constrain the information available over the Internet become less and less effective, the Internet is becoming a profound instrument for the betterment of humankind.

I’ve said it before on this blog and I’ll say it again: The Internet is the most important advance in human society since the invention of the printing press. Whatever your own political persuasions, as an IP engineer you’re helping to make history.


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022