By: Diane Stirling
Heavy use of the Internet and digital communications technologies in recent American presidential campaigns may make it seem that the Internet Age has had a democratizing effect on those efforts.
That prevailing notion is disputed by School of Information Studies Associate Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley, however, who examines the issue in her just-published book, “Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age.”
“Bob Dole’s web site, way back over a decade ago, suggested that political campaigns are not interested in using the full affordances of the Internet for campaigning. Instead, they’re looking to use the Internet to raise money and find supporters, and to try to energize those supporters to become more active in the campaign. But more genuine involvement through message boards, or online forums of any sort, just were not used, even though the technology was widely available,” Stomer-Galley observed.
The author has based her assessments on data collected from the last five presidential campaigns, plus interviews she conducted with various campaign staff members.
“Campaigns try to find best applications and platforms to touch the most numbers of supporters to get them to give money or create support–so all their choices are around fundraising and mobilizing,” she said. “The efforts on the part of ordinary citizens to inject their opinions on how campaigns should be run, or what the policies of the candidates should be, those channels don’t exist. So campaigns are using the networks to win, but not to genuinely interact,” the professor added.
Given a political campaign’s express purpose and limited focus, however, a dollars-and-votes orientation makes sense, according to the author. “I tried hard in this book not to cast campaigns as bad guys, but rather, I hope to demystify or help people understand what the purpose of political campaigns are. What they are doing with social media and web properties is towards very particular goals—[just] not the larger, more hopeful, utopian goal” of involving citizens in the campaigns, she added.
Stromer-Galley said she also wanted the book to convey the history of online political campaigns. The practices used by Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and others were digitally innovative, even though the Obama and Dean presidential runs receive the most notoriety for that capability, she noted. “There were other candidates [who] were involved in some pretty interesting experiments; who did some really unique things that are the precursors to what we do today. Many of the campaigns were innovating, not just the ones we hear about the most.”
In the mass-media era of the past, political campaigns had limited abilities to test variations of a candidate’s messaging, she said. Today, digital communication technologies make it much easier to do that through emails and other tactics. Consequently, Stromer-Galley sees “only more of the same” for the future. In addition, because today’s digital environment offers an increased ability to assess, fine tune, and leverage audience data, the practice of placing mass-media messaging based on data analysis and watcher profiles is also likely to continue. Collecting and analyzing “super data analytics” allows campaigns to choose which TV channels and programs can deliver audiences of “persuadables”– people who might be encouraged to learn towards a particular candidate, she added.
The idea for the book dates back to the author’s 1995 Master’s thesis. That is when she “became really excited by the potential of the technologies and communication channels of the Internet to flatten hierarchies and engage people to communicate and organize through the Internet,” Stromer-Galley said.