After the last presidential campaign I wrote a column in which I called President Barack Obama the first “cyber” president. In using this term I was referring to the fact that then-candidate Obama and his campaign team had made far more sophisticated use of the Internet and social media like Twitter than either his predecessors or his opponents had done.
President Obama used the Internet, Twitter and other digital media both to put out frequent updates on his campaign and to bring crowds to live campaign events. In some cases, such as the announcement of his choice of then-Sen. Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate, President Obama contacted more than one million supporters in this way.
This week, President Obama has announced the beginning of his re-election campaign. Already many of his senior staff have begun to establish the organization and strategy for the 2012 race. I think that there is little doubt that one major part of that strategy will be focused on an even greater use of the Internet and social media. In just the few years that have passed from the last presidential campaign, social media like Facebook and Twitter have grown enormously in both size and importance. Internet political blogs have multiplied and extended their influence to more traditional media like television.
But there is something quite different about the upcoming campaign. In the 2008 presidential race, the Obama campaign team had no real competition in exploiting new media. That has changed. In particular, Sarah Palin and the various supporters of the tea party movement are quite experienced in and expert at using social media.
Anyone who believes that the tea party movement is no more than a bunch of senior citizens and crazies need only look at the movement’s main website at http://teaparty.net. The site is a highly sophisticated political site which uses flash maps, online donations, Facebook and Twitter. Tea party organizers have been quite effective in using Twitter to bring people together for rallies.
In short, individuals and groups which will form part of the opposition to President Obama’s re-election bid are now as sophisticated in the use of the new media as the president and his campaign are. The advantage enjoyed by the president in the 2008 campaign may well have disappeared.
There’s also a second new force on the Internet which may have some impact on the 2012 presidential campaign: Wikileaks. The disruptive ability of Wikileaks was demonstrated quite clearly last year when the site released thousands of “classified” American diplomatic memoranda. Since that incident, Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has been hounded by British and American authorities. Will Mr. Assange and his colleagues be able to disrupt the 2012 campaign by acquiring and leaking documents from either the Democratic or Republican campaigns?
I think it’s fair to say that the 2012 presidential campaign will be fought, in part — perhaps, in larger part than ever before — on the Internet and in social media. How this will change the nature of the campaign and of American politics in general remains to be seen.