NORTH CAROLINA — Eight years since Howard Dean’s presidential run took the country by storm, how are the Internet and social media shaping the 2012 campaigns? How are campaigns and their supporters exploiting the latest advances—and what challenges do these trends pose for journalists?
For insights on these questions, I recently corresponded by email with Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Kreiss’s forthcoming book, Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama, follows a group of young Internet staffers who met during the Dean campaign, created innovative online organizing practices, and later launched prominent political consulting firms that influenced other elections—including Obama’s 2008 bid for the presidency.
Kreiss is currently conducting ethnographic research on the campaign to defeat North Carolina’s Amendment One, which would constitutionally ban gay marriage, and is planning an interdisciplinary study of media production at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. An edited transcript of our exchange appears below.
As political campaigns move farther into the new media realm, they are increasingly finding ways to target their messages to individuals, rather than online destinations—what Romney adviser Zac Moffatt has called “remarketing.” What implications do these trends have for journalists’ responsibility to check the claims coming from campaigns, and for the media’s ability to shape the debate? Is there a risk traditional media will be cut out of the loop?
While the vast majority of campaign resources continue to be spent on traditional advertising, without question, the biggest area of growth this cycle is in online advertising. And it’s true that campaigns are increasingly leveraging multiple data sources to deliver targeted online advertising to individuals based on characteristics they share with other members of the electorate.
Traditionally, this targeting is checked by the ability of institutions such as the press to monitor the claims of candidates and keep them honest. Journalists, for instance, can monitor and publicize the attempt of candidates to promise different things to different voters.
I believe that journalists will continue to have both the ability and responsibility to play this role—but they will have to keep up with changing strategic communication tactics through innovations in coverage. ProPublica’s compiling of the targeted emails that the Obama campaign sends is a great example of how journalists can insert themselves into individualized information flows and open them to public scrutiny. There are also other opportunities. Crowd-sourcing the collection and analysis of the online advertising that individuals see, for instance, would advance our understanding of how campaigns target the electorate and help us discover patterns in strategic communications. Journalists can track the field efforts of campaigns, which use people as media to deliver targeted communications.
What has the coverage of the campaigns’ shift to the digital/social media world gotten right, and what has it gotten wrong?
The press coverage of digital and social media is much more sober in 2012 than it was in 2008, which is heartening. It seems as if journalists are settling in to exploring how new media is incorporated within institutionalized electoral politics, rather than looking at new media through the lens of the possibility for transformational change.
One growing area of coverage is attention to the privacy implications of political data, particularly in the context of delivering targeted media to individuals. A number of recent articles have advanced our knowledge of how this industry works, from Kate Kaye’s excellent work on online advertising to a spate of recent pieces that have explored data and targeting in the 2012 elections. The best journalistic accounts are measured and think critically about what campaigns and the consultants that serve them can actually do with this data and online advertising.
A large, underreported area of electoral politics is the organization of new media operations within campaigns. There is a tendency in coverage to talk a lot about the strength of “organization” without actually detailing what that means. The story of the Obama campaign in 2008 and, by all accounts now in 2012, is that new and social media was not a separate, stand-alone area of campaign practice. The point was to avoid what many perceived as one of the pitfalls of the Dean campaign: a national Internet operation that was only tenuously connected to what was taking place on the ground in the states. Obama’s effort in 2008, to an extraordinary degree, integrated different areas of campaign practice and used new media in the service of a large-scale ground operation, which campaigns have increasingly invested in to compensate for media fragmentation and oversaturation. The internal operations of campaigns are generally hidden from view, but journalists should always ask the question of whether and how neat new campaign technologies are connected to electoral goals around fundraising, messaging, and votes.