Obama claims upper hand in fierce online battle

Viral videos, joke memes, and tens of millions of tweets: the battleground of this year’s US presidential election has been online. A sign that democracy is changing?

This week, the two hopefuls in the US Presidential election squared off in the last of three dramatic televised debates. There was no clear winner, but one moment particularly stood out.

Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, claimed that America had fewer ships in its Navy than at any time since 1916. But President Barack Obama was ready: ‘Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,’ he countered, ‘we also have these things called aircraft carriers.’

Within minutes, #horsesandbayonets topped the trending list on Twitter. A new account, @obamasbayonets, immediately sprang up, quickly followed by a Tumblr photo blog. Obama’s phrase had become an instant meme.

It is hardly a first in this campaign. The first debate was the most tweeted event in political history, sparking ten million posts in 90 minutes. The second saw Romney make a jarring reference to ‘binders full of women’, causing an internet eruption as Obama supporters portrayed the Republican as out of touch with female aspirations.

Though the candidates are neck and neck in opinion polls, the online battle is dominated by Obama. With 21 million Twitter followers and 31 million Facebook friends, his online presence dwarfs every politician on the planet. Each time he tweets or posts, millions of followers read it and thousands share with their friends.

How much does this matter? Nobody is entirely sure. It does give candidates a two-way channel to talk to ordinary voters, making sure their views are part of the campaign. Yet the impact can be exaggerated: only 15 percent of Americans are even on Twitter.

Yet the internet has undoubtedly changed political campaigns. Much of Obama’s victory in 2008 was down to mobilising grassroots support on a scale impossible in previous elections.

As well as $500 million in online donations, Obama’s staff also collected personal details like age, sex, job and even shopping habits. Using the data to construct campaign messages targeting particular groups and individuals, they bombarded them with personalised emails and calls.

In this year’s election, both candidates are at it – and their digital campaigning is even more fine-tuned.

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The internet has changed politics for good, say enthusiasts. For the first time, ordinary people have a platform to air their views, while candidates can address them more directly and personally than ever. Suddenly, every lowly voter has a voice and a presence – this is democracy in action.

Pure hype, say others. Once people talked politics over a drink; now they take to Twitter. Once politicians posted leaflets through your door; now they send emails. The medium has changed, they say, but the message is still what matters.

You Decide

  1. How much has the internet changed politics?
  2. Can you imagine a democracy in which every question was decided by an open online vote? Would this be a good thing?

Activities

  1. Design an online campaign: how about a petition which tries to persuade people to back an issue that you care about?
  2. Can you encapsulate your own key political beliefs in a 140 character tweet? What about summarising the beliefs of Obama and Romney?

Some People Say...

“Too many tweets make a twit.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I couldn’t care less about what Americans are saying on Facebook.
This isn’t just about America: social media has an increasingly important role in the politics of practically every democracy. In the last British election, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was catapulted to brief popularity after supporters peppered the internet with humorous posts marked #iagreewithnick. And the title of a book published by one British MP shows how seriously politicians are taking this:The End of Politics and the Birth of Digital Democracy.
So how can I get involved in this ‘digital democracy’?
Sign an online petition, or even begin one. Join campaigning websites like 38 Degrees and Avaaz. If you’re particularly keen, why not set up a blog and use social media to get support for your opinions?

Word Watch

Televised debates
In every US election since 1976, candidates have gone head-to-head live on television in debates that have produced many famous moments. This year’s first debate changed the course of the campaign: previously, Obama was pulling away in the polls, but after an inept debate performance in which he was dominated by Romney, the momentum switched. Obama has come on top in subsequent debates, though not enough to regain lost ground.
Bayonets
A bayonet is a blade that can be fixed to a rifle to produce a weapon that can be used both from range and up close. It was a standard infantry weapon in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. But though it is less important today, it is still used by militaries worldwide.
Meme
A meme is a unit of culture or information that spreads throughout a culture infectiously. An internet meme is a picture or phrase that gets shared and adapted in many different contexts.
Binders full of women
When Romney was elected Governor of Massachusetts, he claims to have asked for a list of high-achieving females to employ. Advisers brought him ‘whole binders full of women’, he said. The wording was widely ridiculed, and the anecdote failed to convince many observers.
Grassroots support
Contributions made by ordinary people rather than rich donors, corporations and lobby groups.

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