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Huffington: 'Obama Not Elected Without Internet'

Web 2.0
Newsom (l) and Huffington (r)
Photo: James Duncan Davidson
SAN FRANCISCO – Was the Web the difference in Barack Obama's rise to the Presidency?

Bloggers like to think it is, including a panel of political experts at the closing day of the Web 2.0 Summit here.

Then again, all three panelists strongly supported Obama in the campaign.

Obama campaign-related videos garnered 14.5 million hours of viewing on YouTube, according to Democratic political consultant Joe Trippi. He estimates that amount of time would have cost $47 million to buy on TV or about half the amount the McCain campaign received in public financing.

"And to buy that time, you're interrupting people watching football games and soap operas," said Trippi. On the Web, "this is stuff people wanted to watch."

Just as the power of television, via televised debates, was credited with helping John Kennedy win the presidency over Richard Nixon in 1960, the panelists agreed with moderator John Heilemann that in 2008 the Web had at least as significant a role.

"If not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be President or even the democratic nominee," claimed Arianna Huffington of the liberal, Huffington Post Web site.

"His ability to galvanize and fund raise [on the Web]" was incredibly sophisticated. Huffington and other panelists claimed the McCain campaign wasn't nearly as proficient or ambitious in tapping social networks like Facebook and other Web services.

Summit organizers said they invited Republican strategists Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich to participate, but they declined. Had they participated, they might have pointed out other things in Obama's favor besides bloggers. The most obvious: an economic meltdown as the credit crisis deepened in September, an electorate weary with an unpopular war in Iraq, and a Republican president whose dismal approval ratings were only matched or lower by those of Congress itself.

Sticking with the Web angle, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom Gavin agreed that the Obama campaign leveraged Web services to an unprecedented level in national politics. "Now I'm more concerned with what does it mean when we can this unfiltered conversation with people … and how will it help construct public policy?" he asked.

Understanding Web 2.0 and politics

Newsom said most politicians are behind the times on understanding Web 2.0 services and new media. "Last year I ran for reelection and looked out at this big rally, and said to someone 'Who are these people' and was told 'Those are your friends on Facebook.' And I said, 'What's that?"

But now he knows. "I'm obsessed with Facebook, it's an extraordinary tool," he said. "I want someone who is a fanatic and motivated to participate. Most politicians don't understand the capacity of these tools."

Newsom also sounded several cautionary notes. He said politicians face the risk of "a lot of collateral damage" of having their actions tracked to the nth degree on the blogosphere and elsewhere online. "The fear I have now is that we've entered a phase where everything you say is recorded. It's the YouTubeification of the world. I have to watch myself on YouTube singing 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco', and I can't get it to go away – and I'm desperate too," he joked.

On the plus side, Huffington said bloggers are providing an important service in digging in to stories the mainstream media overlooks. "We stay on something," said Huffington.

She claimed bloggers forced the McCain campaign to stop repeating that Sarah Palin rejected the so-called "bridge to nowhere" government boondoggle as governor of Alaska. She claimed that their research showed that Palin's actions were otherwise about the bridge funding.

According to Politifact, a fact-checking project from the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly, Gov. Palin did, in fact, kill funding for the bridge. But by the time the funding was killed, the earmark spending item had already become a touchstone for controversial pork barrel spending issues and was considered a dead project anyway.