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Internet's snowball effect changes political campaigns

"New Media, Old Politics," a panel discussion co-sponsored by the MIT Communications Forum and by the Technology and Culture Forum last Friday, featured presentations on the impact of the Internet and other forms of new media on the 2004 presidential campaign.

The three panelists were Henry Jenkins, the John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities and director of Comparative Media Studies; Garret LoPorto, a consultant for viral Internet marketing campaigns; and Joe Trippi, the national campaign manager for Howard Dean's 2004 campaign and the author of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (HarperCollins). David Thorburn, professor of literature and director of the MIT Communications Forum, moderated the Oct. 14 event in Bartos Theater.

Jenkins identified "convergence"--the interplay between different types of new media and the intersection between old media and new--as being a central factor in this year's political coverage. Both he and Trippi spoke of a campaign caught in the crossfire of the Internet and TV, where a candidate's web postings often get taken out of context, forcing them to defend themselves on television and sparking a mini media tidal wave.

LoPorto said the Internet makes possible a whole new level of viral marketing--putting out targeted messages to a group of like-minded individuals and creating a snowball effect--for political campaigns. This kind of marketing is at the core of groups like

For LoPorto, who works with, the grassroots advocacy group started by Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry's), the challenge is to put out the right message to the right group at the right moment. In the best possible scenario, he might get a 2 to 4 percent response rate from an e-mailing to a carefully selected list of 100,000 names, and that mailing might become a groundswell.

Trippi, a self-proclaimed "technology geek," agreed with Jenkins that a clash between the ascendancy of the Internet and the decline of television is the media story behind this year's presidential campaigns. The Internet is letting Americans connect in powerful ways along political lines, Trippi said.

During the discussion, some in the audience said it was the old media that did in the Dean campaign by incessantly replaying the candidate's infamous "I have a scream" speech. But the miracle, according to Trippi, is that Dean's post-paper, post-broadcast Internet campaign worked at all.

"Dean showed amazing courage and talent, proven by how far he went," Trippi said.

Trippi predicted that American politics hasn't seen the end of the Dean campaign. In another decade or two, "there will be 20 or 30 members of Congress who got their start in the Dean campaign," and they will bring a totally different view of community and empowerment to the electorate, he said.

The Communications Forum and the Technology and Culture Forum will present a sequel presentation, "New Roles for Established Media," Oct. 28 at 5 p.m. in Bartos Theater.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 2004 (download PDF).

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