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August 25, 2008

Text Twist: Campaigns, Movements Still Struggle to Master Modern Messaging


Across the eastern and central United States, there were cries Saturday morning of, “We’ve been robbed.”


The scam was signing up for a text message from the Barack Obama campaign announcing who his pick for vice president would be. The scam was that the message came at 3 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, when most everyone east of the Rocky Mountains was occupied by things not political.


The common refrain was this: “They did this to get our cell phone numbers.” The fear is that when the fall rolls around and cash starts flowing in rivers, that the heavy lifting of getting critical potential donor contact information will already be accomplished. That’s not the fear by the Obama campaign, mind you, but by the people who’d be on the receiving end of the call.


Was it a scam? Perhaps it was part-scam. A more likely explanation is that it was an advanced exercise in message control.


Obama’s announcement was one of the most talked about developments of the campaign, and much of that conversation focused on the “straight to the people” method of getting the word out. It short-circuited not only traditional media outlets, but also anything that might tip off traditional media outlets before word got to thousands of Obama supporters.


It’s the next step in the evolving use of advanced technology to control how information is shaped and how it flows.


Slowly, surely, political campaigns have learned technology and how to use it. Four years ago, Howard Dean provided insights into how you could raise enough cash to compete by targeting small, individual donors over the Web. Last year, Hillary Clinton told the world she planned to run for the presidency on a video clip released on her web site. Last week, Obama refined that tactic with his text message announcement timed to spread the word of his choice while the nation’s media class were either sleeping or drunk at cocktail parties.


The promise of the Web is that it was supposed to remove the gatekeepers of information, to foster an unfiltered marketplace of ideas. That, of course, is downright scary to people who might otherwise depend on a controlled message, so interests – especially political interests who stand the most to lose – have been trying to co-opt it since it got big enough to matter.


Five years ago, the Internet was an unrealized opportunity for basically everyone. Ideologically oriented bloggers were waging their own kind of war. Aside from Internet geeks, no one knew who they were.


On the left, they attained something of a rock-star status. They were irreverent, independent and unafraid to harshly criticize the policies of the then-still popular George W. Bush. By the time the 2004 convention rolled around, they were openly courted by the Democratic Party. On the right, after Dan Rather was brought down and his career broken, they fell into their place as cogs in the GOP machine. Their purpose was to smear opponents without tainting their candidates or the party.


The battle to control ownership of the message has continued since. While conservative blogs continue their rich tradition of service to party above all else, on the left there is an ongoing attempt to bring the message under greater control. Criticism of Democrats is attacked as providing ammunition for Republicans, and there are also voices calling for message discipline, the cleaving to one line of argument to advance The Cause.


Will it succeed? Well, Hillary Clinton owned the announcement of her candidacy by releasing a video on her web site during a slow time of the news cycle. The Obama campaign sent a text message to individual phones during an even slower time.


If you don’t think that controlling the message is possible, that should provide a clue that someone disagrees. I mean, come on, you didn’t think having a free and unrestrained exchange of ideas was going to be as easy as declaring that one existed, did you?


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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