A virtual equivalent of fisticuffs has broken out online, and no, it is not between warring camps of “American Idol” fans or bloggers with too much time on their hands. Rather, the dispute is between a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination and a once-ardent supporter.
While much of the argument falls into “he said, he said” territory, this much is clear: Joe Anthony, a Los Angeles paralegal, set up an unofficial MySpace page for Senator Barack Obama atmyspace.com/barackobama, after he heard his speech at the Democratic convention in 2004, and then invested time and energy into its development.
The Obama campaign got in touch with Anthony once his site — which was rapidly attracting tens of thousands of MySpace “friends” — appeared on its radar. For a while, a synergy apparently existed between the two.
Then the Obama campaign asked to take over the page, and the relationship quickly turned ugly. Anthony requested financial reimbursement for the time he had put into building the site, but the campaign reportedly refused to pay up. It then approached MySpace to obtain control of the site.
As Anthony says in his own blog posting on the matter: “I was blocked from the profile, and the content was altered to redirect traffic to the new, ‘official’ profile. MySpace has, in fact, granted access to the profile without my permission.”
It is now a truism that Web 2.0 is a campaign heavyweight. What this incident makes clear is that the political apparatus is still grappling with how to manage the latest technology and take advantage of the real-time access it provides to candidates.
“There is no doubt that social networking sites are going to play a larger role in the next election,” said Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of American Studies at Temple University and editor of BarbershopNotebooks.com.
The benefits of using the new media are obvious, and they go well beyond candidates not wishing to be portrayed as old coots unable to master new generation technology.
“A MySpace profile or a clever ad on YouTube makes you feel closer to a candidate,” Hill told TechNewsWorld. “It has a democratizing effect to it — people may not be able to pay (US)$1,000 to have dinner with a candidate, but they still can feel like they know him.”
Web 2.0 technology also allows candidates to reach out to new constituencies — often at a much cheaper price point than the more traditional forms of communication such as direct mail, Phillip Lamb, software architect for Echo Ditto, told TechNewsWorld.
Twenty-somethings who frequent such sites are obvious targets. So are people who are totally disconnected from old line telephony, like Lamb himself.
“I don’t have a home phone — I have a cell phone. I don’t get much physical mail, and when I do, it is usually junk, so I throw it out without looking,” he explained.
“Instead of spending $100,000 on a direct mail campaign,” Lamb suggested, “you can spend half that for hiring consultants to set up Facebook accounts, YouTube video campaigns, and so on, and distribute them to the appropriate venues.”
Web 2.0 Drawbacks
One of the drawbacks to this access is, well, the access, which sometimes can be anathema to a politician on the campaign trail.
“I have specific questions that I want answered by each candidate, and I think that MySpace will be the perfect platform to share those questions,” opined Adryenn Ashley, a filmmaker and author of Every Single Girl’s Guide To Her Future Husband’s Last Divorce.
“The key is that I will post the question as a comment,” she said. “If they choose to deny the comment, then I know they are avoiding the question. If they post the comment and never answer the question, again, they are avoiding the question. If 10,000 people ask the same question, and they still refuse to answer, then I have a problem for the candidate.”
There are other considerations as well. “The danger of MySpace will be who is ‘allowed’ to be part of the candidate’s friends list,” Charles Small, senior associate with the Westin Rinehart Group told TechNewsWorld.
“What could happen if they post someone who may have a sketchy background? Campaigns will need to do their homework throughly before putting out user-generated content on their page,” he observed.
Also, some of the more sober-minded political commentators worry about the consequences of an information diet that consists solely of Web 2.0-generated campaign materials.
“College students will very likely rely on MySpace.com as an important source for information during the next presidential elections,” Gisela Gil-Egui, assistant professor of communication at Fairfield University, told TechNewsWorld.
“One of the reasons is that they still trust this site as a neutral, noncommercial, and student-led place for social interaction,” she said.
However, most students are not aware that it is owned by News Corp. and thus likely to gradually transition toward a marketing and cross-media promotion tool, she pointed out, “all under a clever guise of spontaneous, nonstructured exchange of information among its members.”
Shades of Election 2006 also haunt candidates. “They will try to avoid a George Allen ‘Macaca’-like moment,” Small said, “but it might not be humanly possible to avoid committing a gaffe. And when they do, it will be played immediately, played over and over, for everyone to see.”
A Tarnished Image?
Which brings us to Obama’s alleged treatment of Anthony, who compared it to President George W. Bush’s dealings with Congress.
Despite the accusations of heavy-handedness, it is likely that this incident will blow over and leave Obama’s reputation relatively pristine.
“Obama has been very good at distancing himself from these things,” Hill said, citing the “1984” attack ad against Hillary Clinton that appeared on YouTube and was traced to a Obama supporter.
In the end, this will probably turn out to be more of a story about campaigning in the modern age than a story about Obama, suggested Robert Arena, vice president of Carton Donofrio Partners, which led the Internet strategy for the Christine Todd Whitman and George Pataki re-election campaigns.
“As campaigns use more and more user-generated content, politicians will reap the benefits,” Arena told TechNewsWorld, “but they should be aware that the creators may ask for a cut.”