November 2008

GW Institute Charts Internet’s Effect on Campaigns

IPDI Director Julie Germany travels the globe to speak about Internet use and strategies in the 2008 presidential election.

By Julia Parmley

Breaking news, the juiciest sound bites, and the latest rumors about the 2008 presidential race are just a mouse click away. The Internet has become a powerful political tool in this year’s campaign, and GW’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet (IPDI) is keeping up with every development.

Part of GW’s Graduate School of Political Management in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, IPDI researches the latest online trends, publishes guidelines on Internet usage, and holds conferences on democratizing the use of the Internet and other new technologies.

“The way voters use the Internet and new media changes our expectations for candidates and the political process,” says IPDI Director Julie Germany, M.A. ’03. “Voters no longer passively absorb political information and ads from television and radio. They want to be involved in the process, and they are demanding higher levels of participation, interaction, interactivity, and customization—from microblogging during the debates to posting videos on YouTube to organizing their friends and neighbors into grassroots armies.”

Through its blog, IPDI offers breaking news and analysis of current events in politics, governance, and technology. It also hosts an annual Politics Online Conference and a monthly Ideas Series covering emerging policies and issues at the intersection of technology and politics. The institute has been featured in a wide variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and BBC World News, and was named one of the “Top Ten Changing the World of Internet & Politics” by PoliticsOnline Inc.
Examining the 2008 presidential election from the perspective of citizens is a particular focus for the institute this year, says Germany. Last fall, IPDI released Poli-fluentials: The New Political Kingmakers, which outlines the characteristics, media consumption habits and online activities of the people most likely to volunteer, donate, and promote candidates and causes in this year’s election. Through an e-mail survey, Germany and her staff also identified registered voters who are heavily engaged in the election as “word-of-mouth leaders.”

“They are the people who get the word out about candidates or issues,” says Germany. “Studies have shown that people are not necessarily influenced by the loudest voice, but by the people who are trusted in their network, like these citizens.”

Germany also is collecting information on Internet strategies and engagement for a book on the 2008 presidential election. Two IPDI events in the spring will be included in the book: a seminar with senior strategists of each campaign and a conference with people she calls “citizen activists,” who have used the Internet to rally votes or express their political views.

This year, Germany says the candidates are using the Internet to meet three major goals: fundraising, engaging media, and getting out the vote. According to Germany, Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) campaign is the most technologically advanced with its use of sophisticated databases like MyBo to reach potential and undecided voters by text message, e-mail, or phone, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has found success using online videos to gain media attention and voter support.

“The Internet is really starting to shape political activity,” she says. “The candidates know who you are, who your friends are, and the issues you care about through Internet databases. People also are connecting to online videos more than other online media.”

While the Internet is clearly a valuable political tool in this year’s election, Germany believes its “dark side” is sometimes exploited. “Some candidates use it primarily as a launch pad for attacks,” she says. “I fear that they are not always thinking strategically about using the Internet.”

Germany has traveled the globe to speak about the Internet in politics and the Graduate School of Political Management. Since July, she has lectured in Alaska, Peru, Venezuela, and Romania on the use of technology in elections and attended both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions to recruit students to GW and discuss Internet use.

As the Internet increasingly influences the choices voters make at the polls, Germany says people need to exercise caution when it comes to what they view and post online.

“As citizens, we need to take responsibility for which sites we visit, which videos we post, and what we blog,” she says. “The Internet can be a useful tool for innovation and problem solving, but we have to train ourselves to use it in a pro-democratic way and not to manipulate or spread rumors. It’s our choice.”


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