United States Presidential candidates for 2008 have a growing factor to address: the increased usage of the Internet. Fully half the people on Earth are going online now, and the United States is one of the most wired countries in the world.
First there are the blogs. Big-ticket bloggers like Wonkette, DailyKos, and Little Green Footballs have replaced newspapers and magazines as the sounding board for public opinion. Most web users are more likely to get their news from the web than from the TV. Television news is slow and repetitive; the few companies controlling the network station lead to a homogenized environment where everybody pretty much says the same thing.
But a soldier can blog directly from a war zone and report some development the minute it happens, without any government control to clean it up. Readers back home see it minutes later, and immediately discuss it on their blogs and message boards. Social news reports the story to the masses. People ask each other what the candidates are going to do about the war, and then visitors search the web for the record of this candidate or that and post a link to the reference. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that's free to edit, updates the relevant articles with the new event.
All of this has happened in an hour, while the television camera crew is still on their way to the scene. By the time it shows up on television, it is literally cold coffee already.
People are also campaigning and debating online. the Presidential candidates may have time for nothing but a few minutes of raising their hands in response to questions, like a game of Simon says. But ten thousand voters are having a hundred times the debate right on their websites and chat rooms. There, points are raised, argued, sustained or debunked, all without a hierarchical media professional moderating the discussion.
The candidates are showing a greater awareness of the web audience this election than ever before. They all have websites. Most of them have blogs. Certainly all of them have message boards, where supporters gather to discuss campaign strategy, cheer on their candidate, and keep their candidate informed of developments along the campaign trail. Candidates are paying more attention this year to online polls and surveys, and they speak directly to the Internet audience.
YouTube is figuring prominently. This is a site where anyone can upload video clips for everyone on the web to see. Practically any Senator who says anything near someone with a camera phone ends up on YouTube within minutes. Donations are also coming in through Internet payment services, such as PayPal. People are even registering to vote online.
The opening up of the information age has brought the side effect that campaigns can also be broken in minutes. It is as simple as this: you cannot get away with a single lie when you're on the Internet and are already a public figure. The truth always outs, because 500 armchair detectives are scrutinizing your every word. Voting records are found and posted, video clips of what really happened are there to be viewed. The Internet may yet become the new "paparazzi", because it is everywhere, and instant.
One of the dangerous problems that has already come up is that the Internet can be used for abuse as easily as it can be used for the truth. Spammers, social news riggers, and web-based attacks have already been deployed, and the one thing the Internet doesn't reveal is who's behind it all, because the Internet brings with it anonymity. Maybe that gaffe was the action of your candidate's campaign crew, or maybe it was somebody from the other crew trying to make your candidate look bad. It is easier now to blow the whistle anonymously than it ever was before, but now when you see it, you have to ask yourself if it's really true, and what are the real motives behind it.
For good or bad, the Internet has let the genie of the crowd-sourced media out of the bottle, and it's not going back.