The Limits and Promise of Interactive Politics Online
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Everything moves so fast in the world of online politics -- the new online donors! the new Web videos! the new anti-Obama site or pro-McCain site! -- that introspection is often lacking. Last week, it should be noted, was a memorable one in the short history of our clickocracy. There was the interview that President Bush gave Yahoo! News and Politico on Tuesday, the first ever exclusively delivered to an online audience. Then, later that night, young Democratic superdelegates, after asking for input from their peers on YouTube and Facebook, announced their support for Sen. Barack Obama on YouTube.
Both are instructive in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
President Bush's interview made headlines, especially this nugget: Bush said he gave up golfing as an act of solidarity with families of the dead and wounded soldiers after the assassination of United Nations representative Sergio Vieira de Mello in August 2003. "I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal," Bush told Politico's Mike Allen. Less discussed, however, was the interview's interactive setting. In addition to Allen, the president took questions from online readers. Steve Bailey asked about rising gas prices: "With oil at $126 a barrel, pushing up the price of everything -- even food -- what can your administration do to help people right now?" Bruce Becker, meanwhile, wondered if the president was misled on Iraq.
To be sure, these questions were screened beforehand, and the interview was a controlled environment. There would be no big surprises. Still, the online interaction was a positive precedent to set -- and one that future presidents will likely follow. Obama, for one, has spoken about holding online national town hall meetings and fireside Web chats if elected.
But what must be remembered is that, as seen through the eyes of online congregants, the political Web operates on two basic principles: transparency and accountability. And interactivity doesn't necessarily lead to either. In short, making politics interactive, as Bush did, doesn't always make it more transparent or accountable. Case in point: The Post's own Fact Checker has noted that Bush played golf at least two times after de Mello's death. Type "Bush" and "golfing" on YouTube and more than 350 videos pop up.
For an example of how interactivity has led to greater accountability and transparency, check out the YouTube video posted by Lauren Wolfe and Awais Khaleel asking college students to tell them whom to endorse. As president and vice president of the College Democrats of America, they are among the youngest Democratic superdelegates and tasked, Wolfe said in an interview, "to reflect the views of college voters in the country." Their motive was clear. "As the Democratic Party's two superdelegates who represent college students," Wolfe said in the video, "we want to make sure that our vote belongs to you."
What followed was an intense onslaught of online input: e-mails, YouTube comments, Facebook wall posts, even instant messages. On Wolfe's Facebook wall, friends, classmates and strangers weighed in. Most were Obama supporters, but there were some Clintonites, too. Wrote Matt Feldman: "Being from Michigan, you should understand that our state matters. A vote for Obama is a vote against Michigan. He took his name off the ballot. He did not agree to a private funded revote. He does not want to seat Michigan in Denver. Stand with your state and vote for Hillary." And when Wolfe and Khaleel announced their decision -- they backed Obama -- the reaction was swift and slightly mixed. "I was very saddened by your endorsement, Lauren," wrote Ian Rivera. "I guess College Democrats solely considers talk over action..." But Mark C. Gaffney spoke for most when he wrote: "WOO WOO WOO WOO WOO WOO WOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
To Wolfe, 25, a law student at the University of Detroit-Mercy, the YouTube interaction was only natural. The superdelegate process, she said, has been mysterious. Who are supederlegates accountable to? How transparent is a superdelegate's process in making his/her decision?
Big questions both -- with repercussions in the future.
This is the third in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to vargasj-at-washpost-dot-com.
Posted at 6:00 AM ET on May 19, 2008
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