May 12, 2004 By Keith Comstock
By Robert J. Klotz
Published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
Does the Internet have the power to change our democracy? In the last few months, the nation witnessed the meteoric rise of Democratic party hopeful Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor's ascent was fueled in large part by his unprecedented ability to raise funds via the Internet. Dean raised lots of money and received prestigious endorsements from celebrities, including many key individuals in the Democratic party, such as former Vice President Al Gore. Yet once the primary started heating up, Dean's campaign imploded, unable to translate cyber-support into Boston-bound delegates.
In his new book, The Politics of Internet Communication, Robert J. Klotz explores the myriad ways the Internet is changing how we interact politically. Klotz begins with a comprehensive overview of the Internet's origins and development, and put to rest the single most important technology question of the 2000 presidential election: Did Al Gore create the Internet?
I won't give away the answer, but I will hint that the former senator and vice president had a lot of help from some very talented individuals.
Past inventions like the telegraph, telephone, radio and television have fundamentally altered our political process. The modern campaign message is a mass-market message. Nuances, subtleties and differences are glossed over in an attempt to "stay on message."
The Internet is a very different animal than radio and television. First, the filter provided by the media is removed. With no Dan Rather or New York Times editors to get in the way, candidates are free to craft unfiltered messages -- they create their own Web sites, manage blogs and discussion groups, and maintain e-mail list servers to mobilize the base, and like Howard Dean, raise money.
Citizens are no longer limited to 30-second advertisements or the slightly longer interviews and debates on television. Online, citizens are free to linger and can digest as much specific information on an issue as the candidate has chosen to share. An online campaign is exceptionally convenient for citizens, as they decide what information to consume, from whom to consume it and at what time. Klotz reports that the primary reason citizens visit candidates online is convenience.
Another significant change is the lack of passive exposure in a cyber-campaign. This can be a blessing or a curse to candidates. Additionally the mood of the voter at the time the information is consumed can't be measured. In traditional campaign advertising, ads can be created specifically to run during a sporting event or sitcom, while a different kind of advertisement might target viewers of Larry King Live.
Klotz emphasizes the Internet's potential for interactivity on a mass level. Candidates can send their message to the masses, and citizens can send their message to the candidate. With chats, list servers and online town hall meetings, citizens can develop a sense of intimacy with a candidate that's hard to replicate, except as a campaign volunteer.
Klotz explores Internet use after the election in his sections on e-government at the federal and state level. He shares many of the success stories, but stops short of telling us what can or should happen next.
The Politics of Internet Communication is a solid review of the Internet's first act.
The Internet continues to transform campaigns. As of press time, Howard Dean is being reborn as a Democratic party activist whose Internet savvy may become a key part of the Democratic offensive while the Kerry campaign struggles to raise money for the fall campaign. We live in interesting times, and Klotz has done an admirable job of documenting them.
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