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Obama campaign more war room than chat room

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19 January 2010 14:15

Eleanor Hall is presenter of ABC Radio National's The World Today. This is her response to a December 2009 post by Sam Roggeveen.

I agree with Sam's proposition that, in social media campaigns, 'reach is inversely proportional to control' and that in political campaigns, in particular, players are highly vulnerable to having their message hijacked. But I disagree with his analysis on why the Obama e-campaign worked despite seeming to fall into the trap he identifies. 

Sam says 'social media tools could have given a disaffected group of these supporters unparalleled power to undermine or derail the campaign' and he suggests that the reason this did not happen for Obama was that 'his supporters were highly committed.' Indeed, Obama's supporters were highly committed and Obama campaign operators gave them significantly more control over their campaigning activities than they would have had in a traditional command-and-control style election operation. 

But, as I point out in my research for the Reuters Institute, while Obama's team was not running a war room campaign, it was not just a chat room either. 

Obama did give an unusual degree of autonomy to his campaign volunteers and relied heavily on the viral nature of the web to spread support. And he was not immune to a spot of online mutiny. But let's be under no illusions about why this campaign worked when the Democrats' first major foray into Presidential e-campaigning crashed and burned with Howard Dean. Apart from the obvious qualities of the candidate, this was a highly controlled political operation. 

Obama's New Media director, Joe Rospars, was taking no chances and indicated to me that he ran a far more centralised operation than the team liked to portray publicly. 

Even so, I can't see even this form of Obama e-revolution transforming political campaigning any time soon in Britain or in Australia. Politicians are clearly trying to emulate the Obama magic by looking look modern and hip on YouTube. Gordon Brown, though, is no Obama. Yet I found political players in the UK extremely wary of the political risks associated with social networking. There is fear on all sides about the loss of control inherent in letting Facebook supporters or some version of Obama Girl take over the distribution of your political message.

Photo by Flickr user kmakice, used under a Creative Commons license.

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