In October 2011, Nick Searcy’s video “He carried yellow flowers” went viral in Fletcher via the student social list. For international students Searcy was unknown to say the least, but this nonsense video endorsing presidential candidate Herman Cain was indeed an interesting campaign finding. Of course the parody did not only appeal to my classmates but also to news agencies and numerous bloggers across the web. Most people I know found it either hilarious or ridiculous, however, regardless of their opinion they still spoke about it, confirming the “media-agenda setting hypothesis.” To date the video drew the attention of half a million viewers on you tube, made it to the list of the most memorable presidential campaign ads in 2011 being the most bizarre, but its impact on the Cain campaign remains unclear.
What does it take for a political campaign to be effective using the means of the Internet? According to Jon-David Schlough, Josh Koster, Andy Barr, and Tyler Davis successful on line campaigns require a large budget, staff and consultancy expertise as well as a “dream opponent.” The chances of getting all three are rare even if you are President Obama, but learning from past experience is always a good recipe. The 2008 US election is know as the first election that was “won on the Internet.” Migrating from traditional to new media campaigning was not an easy transition but four years later “The story of us” dictates the way forward to be digital.
But what would be the persuasive power of an on line media political campaign without the support of the people? Probably insignificant. Key to the 2008 Obama campaign success were three words: Respect, Empower, Include; community organizing inviting volunteers to lead others for the campaign promotion. The active participation of citizens within this framework, quickly expanded to get as many people as possible on board. Anyone is capable of doing something useful for a campaign, if they are given the freedom to act. After all, as field director Jackie Bray rightly pointed, movements are built on relations rather than on individuals.
Needless to say the power of the groundswell is no panacea. There are risks and drawbacks when deploying the power of people and technology. First of all the success of such campaign relies on “the effectiveness of the masses” and until 2008 nothing like that was done. Obama’s open and friendly approach combined with the use of inclusive language definitely played a crusial role for success. Secondly, new media empower people by giving them the ability to create and share content with millions of people in a second without any control. Thus it is impossible to avoid instances where individuals will take the initiative to contribute via digital means but cause harm instead, like the infamous Obama girl you tube viral video in 2007, or the Romney binder game in 2012. On the bright side, political candidates may also enjoy benefits from individual actions such as the “Yes We Can” music video creation featuring celebrities singing the President’s speech that also went viral.
Overall, political campaigning, regardless of the means used, is an art and science aiming to induce emotion and influence the electorate decision making, and its persuasiveness depends on the campaign capacity to instill fear or enthusiasm. Over the last 5 years we have witnessed a change in the nature of politics since new technology is systematically used in campaigning. The guaranteed traditional media political message repetition is hard to achieve over the Internet. On line campaigning is still a challenge and definitely experts have a lot to learn until they get it 100% right. Journalists share their power with bloggers, and social media users. News are easier to circulate but so are rumors. Aligning and empowering people in community organizing is a new concept proven to be effective for Obama, and remains to be seen if it will work for other presidential candidates in the future.
The Obama participatory, groundswell campaign, surpassed the money-media-message model by bringing up the importance of citizen participation and shined like a yellow diamond. Following this leading elections paradigm in 2008, the “yellow flowers” ad in 2011 is surprising and disappointing. Alternative campaign approaches may undeniably be effective, nevertheless re-inventing the wheel is not what I expect to see in the US political scene. Looking forward to the next presidential election in 2016, I am hoping to see on line campaigning evolving forward and not backwards. Introducing ideas and building on the potential of groundswell may eventually result in a wider social change beyond politics.