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Web for Status Quo AND Change

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, August 21 2006

The Washington Post continues to out-do The New York Times in its coverage of the intersection of technology and politics. Two recent examples of smart reporting from the Post: Jeffrey Birnbaum's piece on "Targeting Likely Advocates With Web Ads," and William Booth's piece on Robert Greenwald's net-centric approach to financing and distributing his political documentaries, "His Fans Greenlight His Films."

Birnbaum's story gives us a fresh take on how some well-heeled players are using technology to better game the system, i.e., to empower themselves in a top-down way. Want to build a list of citizens who will help your cause? Fine-tuned Internet advertising can get you folks, but it will cost you $5 per advocate, Birnbaum reports. The somewhat creepy example he gives is of a campaign run that OnPoint Advocacy of Democracy Data & Communications ran for the American Medical Association.

Apparently, when the AMA, which was looking for people who support its push for a crackdown on medical malpractice suits, "health Web sites didn't bring the best results. Game and puzzle sites were far superior." In other words, people who tend to be informed about health care are less likely to want to give up their right to sue a bad doctor than others.

Birnbaum writes, "Some people (maybe many) will be appalled [by his reporting]. They will see these efforts as manipulative, the kind of powerful tool that only wealthy interests can afford. Nonetheless, this is the future -- and the present -- of lobbying. It needs to be discussed." He's right.

In contrast, Booth's article on Robert Greenwald is an example of how the net is changing the political game, arguably for the better, by making it possible for more serious documentaries to get made and get a hearing. (Now, in light of the popularity of the 9-11 conspiracy movie Loose Change, you might argue that this is hardly a universally good thing, but I guess you could say the same thing about the invention of the printing press.)

What's interesting about Greenwald's experimentation with his net-based documentary development is that he's not just raising money for his films online (his next film, on war profiteering, raised $182K from two rich donors and $185K from 3000 small donors giving an average of $62 each). He's also circumventing the commercial theaters by tapping his activist supporters to distribute the film on small screens across people's living rooms and church basements.