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The Crowd-Scouring of the Presidency (and the End of Rovian Politics?)

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, October 21 2008

Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, who just endorsed Barack Obama, tells Arianna Huffington, another Obama supporter, that "We are witnessing the end of Rovian politics," thanks to the internet and tools like YouTube. And Huffington amplifies his point, writing today:

Thanks to YouTube -- and blogging and instant fact-checking and viral emails -- it is getting harder and harder to get away with repeating brazen lies without paying a price, or to run under-the-radar smear campaigns without being exposed.

Leaving aside the fact that both Schmidt and Huffington are both rooting for Obama to win, and therefore are inclined to color every McCain attack in the darkest terms possible, I think they have a point. Something significant has changed in just the last four years. We are collectively witnessing, and simultaneously creating, a networked public sphere that continuously scours the world for interesting information and collectively bubbles the most important stuff to greater view.

Call it "crowd-scouring" rather than "crowd-sourcing." Yes, the latter still works quite well, and bloggers like Josh Marshall are showing how you can enlist your readers in bubbling up reports of robo-calls or a mysterious pattern of US attorney firings. But even without central direction, the crowd is scouring the world for interesting news and sharing tidbits constantly.

This is true on the Right as well as on the Left--though with public opinion apparently moving to the Left as the election comes down to the wire, their messages aren't resonating as widely. But you can look at the continuing conversation on the Right aimed at unearthing more details about Obama's relationship to Bill Ayers, ACORN, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, etc as evidence of the same crowd-scouring happening on the Left. (I have a small rejoinder on this topic, pertaining to Obama's relationship to the New Party, which is covered in my book on third parties, here.) Bloggers on the right are trying valiantly to find the silver bullet that will revive their candidate's chances. It's looking less and less likely that that will happen, but if it does, odds are it will be because a blogger or YouTuber spotted it first.

There's another change going on, though, where I think Obama has clearly seized the advantage. Arianna writes:

The Internet has enabled the public to get to know candidates in a much fuller and more intimate way than in the old days (i.e. four years ago), when voters got to know them largely through 30-second campaign ads and quick sound bites chosen by TV news producers.

Compare that to the way over 6 million viewers (on YouTube alone) were able to watch the entirety of Obama's 37-minute speech on race -- or the thousands of other videos posted by the campaign and its supporters.

Yes, this is the rise of the "sound-blast" over the sound-bite. I don't know why the McCain campaign hasn't made more use of this potential by sitting McCain in front of a camera in a setting most congenial to him, but you can be sure that this will be the last Republican presidential candidate to miss this opportunity.

Arianna makes one last point:

Back in the Dark Ages of 2004, when YouTube (and HuffPost, for that matter) didn't exist, a campaign could tell a brazen lie, and the media might call them on it. But if they kept repeating the lie again and again and again, the media would eventually let it go (see the Swiftboating of John Kerry). Traditional media like moving on to the next shiny thing. But bloggers love revisiting a story. So when Palin kept repeating her bridge to nowhere lie, bloggers kept calling her on it. Andrew Sullivan, for one, has made a cottage industry of calling Palin on her lies. And eventually, the truth filtered up and cost McCain credibility with his true base: journalists.

The Internet may make it easier to disseminate character smears, but it also makes it much less likely that these smears will stick.

Well, we don't know how true this statement is, yet, do we? Would more Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim if the Internet didn't exist? Or less? Given how quickly the net can now find and spread a compelling message, will it make the events of the next 14 days even more volatile?

If anything, the next two weeks are the final test for Arianna's thesis. It's been said that "A lie can run around the world before the truth can get its boots on." Can the Internet catch lies and expose them faster than it can spread them? And will low-information voters--the people least likely to be paying attention to the net--get the message?

If there's any silver lining here, it's that once the election is over, these new habits and tools will get aimed at making government more honest, open and effective. That's my hope, anyway.