Though they extol the information superhighway as the wave of the future, presidential candidates are not yet Internet-savvy, Professor Henry Jenkins said at a lecture at Bartos Theater last Thursday.
"All of the candidates have Web pages this time around, but most of them use them foolishly," said Dr. Jenkins, associate professor of literature and director of Film and Media Studies. "You can't rely on a single message having as great an impact on the Web as on the evening news."
The exceptions are the third-party candidates, who are hosting on-line discussion groups and using their Web sites to get the "air time" they aren't getting on major network television.
Less mainstream candidates fare quite well on a non-mainstream medium like the Internet, said Professor Jenkins, pointing to a poll of visitors to one independent Web site, where Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne leads President Clinton, who is followed by Ralph Nader of the Green Party and then Republican Bob Dole.
"Brown is getting more exposure on the Net than on television, which is indicative of an interesting future for third-party candidates on the Net," Professor Jenkins said. He added that the Internet will likely play a more prominent role in mainstream election politics in four to eight years, when candidates figure out how to use the medium to promote their message.
One problem with the Internet, he pointed out, is that surfers can reread a message many times, so it has to be carefully crafted. On network television, however, a message goes by quickly and is not repeated.
There is a similar distinction between cable television and network television. While one six-to-eight-second TV sound bite still reaches the broadest audience, candidates can address targeted audiences on cable television. And cable shows, where a candidate can get 20 minutes or more to air his or her views, are repeated for viewers.
For example, during the 1992 election, then-candidate Bill Clinton used both MTV to reach young Americans and the Arsenio Hall talk show to reach African-Americans in south-central Los Angeles and other areas. This was very effective, Professor Jenkins said.
"He had a chance to reach a percentage of the voters he couldn't reach during the evening news," he said. "After Clinton's appearance on MTV, America had the highest voter turnout for 18-to-24-year-olds since 18-year-olds could vote."
But the cable slots, because they appeal to specific demographic groups rather than the general population which views network television, can backfire later. Professor Jenkins pointed to recent anti-drug ads on network television by Bob Dole showing clips of President Clinton telling an MTV cable audience he would try to inhale marijuana if he had another chance.
Media usage and influence are evolving from campaign to campaign, Professor Jenkins said. In 1988, network television still dominated political campaigns. But by 1992, cable television had taken on a critical role, led by President Clinton. The Internet is just beginning to take shape in this year's race. One advantage the Internet gives over television is a mode for feedback from the electorate, he said.
"This year's campaign will move us toward Net-based political campaigns four to eight years from now," Professor Jenkins said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 6, 1996.