Are Americans Using the Internet to Go Beyond the Sound Bite?

Posted on June 18, 2008
Filed Under Culture & Technology |

Back in January, I argued that “Politics 2.0 is politics as usual” and stated:

In my opinion, Web 2.0 has become little more than the technological equivalent of the candidate-holds-a-baby photo opportunity. It looks great that politicians are answering questions from Internet users, making themselves appear more accessible and encouraging grassroots campaigns, but it’s really little more than marketing fodder. I don’t see any evidence that politicians are going to change the way they do business.

According to a new Pew Internet and American Life Project study, the Internet is playing an increasingly important role in the 2008 election:

A record-breaking 46% of Americans have used the internet, email or cell phone text messaging to get news about the campaign, share their views and mobilize others.

Pew found that 35% of Americans have watched political videos online, 10% have used social networks to access or promote campaign information and 6% have made a donation to a campaign online.

Most interestingly, Pew that Americans are going “beyond [the] sound bite.”

Some 39% of online Americans have used the internet to access “unfiltered” campaign materials, which includes video of candidate debates, speeches and announcements, as well as position papers and speech transcripts.

When I read this, I couldn’t help but ask myself: since when did candidate debates, speeches, announcements and position papers become “unfiltered”? While they are “first hand,” calling them “unfiltered” seems to, in my opinion, inappropriately convey the notion that somehow these materials are spin-free. Logically, if you can’t trust what politicians say, it’s worth asking: what good is any of the material that comes directly from them? Lies are still lies, even if they’re technically “unfiltered.”

But semantics notwithstanding, I think it’s worth pondering whether or not Americans who are accessing this “unfiltered” information are really using it to make informed judgments on policy positions. Are they doing research or are they simply looking to access materials from the candidate they’ve already chosen to support?

Pew’s report seems to indicate the latter, noting that “Obama’s supporters are the most likely to have embraced these online activities.” Hence, it appears that these materials are not being accessed in an attempt to go beyond the “sound bite” so much as they are being accessed to reinforce existing beliefs.

Ironically, in my personal experience, I’ve yet to meet many Obama or McCain supporters who are capable of conveying their candidate’s policy positions.

To be sure, they know how to recite the typical blabber (i.e. “McCain is four more years of Bush” or “Obama has no experience”), but if you ask them substantive questions, it’s rare that any are to be found.

I’ve yet to meet a McCain supporter, for instance, who can explain how his healthcare plan won’t leave older citizens and those with pre-existing conditions more vulnerable or how having two tax systems that Americans can choose from will make the tax code simpler.

And I find that Obama supporters are equally speechless when I ask them how Obama’s healthcare plan will actually reduce healthcare costs or why he wants to consider raising the capital gains tax, which will actually decrease tax revenue for the United States government.

In short, I see little more than politics as usual: new mediums, same uneducated bullshit.

Fortunately, some Americans still seem to get it. 60% of Americans believe that the Internet is “full of misinformation and propaganda that too many voters believe is accurate.” 48% understand that the “news and information you get online is just the same as you can get anywhere else.” And only 28% felt that the “internet helps me feel more personally connected to my candidate or campaign of choice.”

At the end of the day, even if you believe that Americans are going “beyond the sound bite” using the Internet, my position is simple: until Americans start thinking for themselves and recognizing that government cannot solve all of their problems, every election will resemble Groundhog Day - even if the technology used to distribute campaign bullshit changes.

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