By Brendan Watson — University of Missouri
The Internet undoubtedly got more people involved in the 2004 presidential election, participants in a "super panel" at the ONA Conference in Hollywood on Saturday agreed, but whether that involvement brought about changes in the campaigns touched off a lively debate.
"In a campaign that seemed very long and which was very polarizing, one great virtue was that turnout was way up and reached levels not seen since 1960," said Dick Meyer, editorial director of CBSNews.com and moderator of the discussion. "And I think that it is obvious that online news sites are responsible for all of this."
Meyer said this with a chuckle, but his comment quickly touched off the discussion about the influence of the online community, particularly bloggers, in the election.
The panel consisted of syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, bloggers Mickey Kaus and Dave Winer, former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, and Rock the Vote President Jehmu Greene.
"I went to a blogger conference a couple of weeks ago, and one thing I learned is that I tend to be an idealist and see blogs as revolutionary," Winer said. "But I also learned a lot of other people don't see it that way."
Kaus said blogs' effect has not been on politics itself, but on how it is reported, speeding up the news cycle. He gave as an example the story this past week about potential widespread voter fraud in Ohio.
"The traditional, responsible journalism approach would be not to print any rumors, to check with the experts," Kaus said. "Bloggers didn't do that. As a result we know the truth fast ... we know those accusations aren't true and we can move on."
Looking beyond just blogs, however, Greene and Joe Trippi said the Web played a huge role this past election.
In 2004, 1.2 million people downloaded voter registration information from RockTheVote.com, up from 120,000 people in 2000. This spike in online information-seeking, Greene said, illustrates the potential of the Internet to empower voters and represents "just the tip of the iceberg."
Trippi cited the Dean campaign's successful online fundraising drive in which it raised large amounts of money through small, individual contributions as further evidence of the Web's revolutionizing of the political process.
"This election is the first time that you saw a group of bloggers using the power of the Internet to change a top-down system that had lost touch with its constituents," Trippi said. "The Dean Campaign understood that this was an amazing tool to empower people to change a political system that was busted and is."
Trippi envisioned a time when 5 million Americans would raise half a billion dollars by contributing $100 each, displacing the influence that political lobbyists wield through their large pocketbooks.
Winer, however, questioned the extent to which Dean's Internet campaign was empowering.
"NPR will only allow me to give money but it won't air what I have to say," Winer said. "Campaigns are the same way. If I go to their Web site and say, 'Hey, let me give you money if you will support this issue that is important to me,' they will not listen. I want to do more than just give money."
Winer said it's "pure fantasy" to think that an online community will have significant influence over a presidential candidate anytime soon. He said, however, that he believes blogs will replace community journalism as influential players in local politics.
Huffington said, blogs' influence will be muted until their authors uphold basic journalistic principles.
"One thing I would like to stop seeing is so many stories that don't have all of the evidence," she said, citing the inaccurate exit polling data that spread through the Internet like wildfire early on election day. "I think that what we need to guard against is putting stuff out without regard for accuracy."
Greene echoed Huffington's concerns about accuracy and also voiced concern that the blogosphere has contributed to a polarized country.
"In the same way the Internet has become the perfect way to raise campaign money, it has also become the perfect way to spread a more politically charged and polarizing message to the public," Greene said. "I don't think in any other election cycle you can get a picture of your opponent in a diaper giving a speech, singing and doing the jig."
Greene called on the online community to reflect on its role in adding to the polarization of the country, and thinking of ways to be "more responsible."
None of the panelists questioned the staying power of blogs and a larger online political community.
Envisioning how the Internet may mature, Greene said voters will be able to register to vote and cast ballots online.
Trippi said that by 2008 the power of the Internet will reach far beyond that.
"The Internet is going to play a larger role in governance," Trippi said. "I had this vision of John Kerry as president e-mailing his healthcare plan to 20 or 30 million Americans a week before he gave it to congress and telling them: 'This is my plan and I would like you to sign on and, if you do, call your congressmen and let's beat the lobbyists.'
"We're definitely going to see a leap in the Internet enabling people to participate in governance."