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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 16:33 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 16:33 | SYDNEY

Controlling the message online

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8 December 2009 10:40

ABC journalist Eleanor Hall won a scholarship to study online political campaigns, and reports that Barack Obama's breakthrough campaign was not the free-wheeling, grassroots effort we might have believed. That challenges some of my own thinking on this issue.

In the speech on 'New Media and World Politics' I gave in Melbourne last month, I put the proposition that when it comes to social media information campaigns, 'reach is inversely proportional to control'.

That is to say, when you allow volunteers and enthusiasts to spread your message online, the message can easily get hijacked — the Chevy Tahoe campaign is an ideal example. Obama didn't suffer from this, I argued, because his supporters were highly committed. The test would come in his re-election campaign, I said, when there is less fervour and he has a real record to defend.

Hall punctures that view a little bit by arguing that the Obama campaign used social media to exert a high degree of control over supporters. But Hall seems to have a pretty loose definition of 'control':

So you have this idea of this disparate Facebook groups all driving it, but in fact Barack Obama's e-campaign director, who I spoke to for this project, said, look, we needed to get people all on one spot so that we could direct them.

We gave them a lot of their own power; they went and set up their own meetings, they went out into their communities and campaigned for Barack Obama, but we controlled what they did; we knew what they were doing and in a broad sense, you know, we were able to direct them. So it was sort of that combination of using the grassroots enthusiasm, but controlling it.

I would still argue that social media tools could have given a dissafected group of these supporters unparalleled power to undermine or derail the campaign, and Obama's central command would have had no way to stop it. That this didn't happen is testament to the enthusiasm of Obama's supporters and perhaps the close vetting they got from the campaign.

But while you can't stop such e-insurgencies, you can react to them, and Hall goes on to describe the way the Obama campaign tried to counter the 'Obama is a Muslim' stories that appeared during the race:

What the Barack Obama campaign managers did was to put a little sort of note effectively on any time you'd Google 'Barack Obama is a Muslim' a little note would come up to say, go to the official campaign site and you'll find out the information that you need to know.

And so that it was, it was not a sort of blanket, we're going to come out and oppose this, because would have made it a big story. It was quite a clever way of opposing that because it really only targeted those people who were getting this misinformation.

That's a different way of making Evgeny Morozov's point that, while the internet makes censorship and suppression much more difficult, it does not prevent counter-campagining. As Morozov explains in this video, it's a lesson the Chinese communist party has also learnt.

Image ('If Facebook was a country') by Flickr user socialinfographics, used under a Creative Commons license.

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