The rise of Democracy 2.0: Five reasons why Web 2.0 is changing the face of American politics
Source: courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge website , Author: Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta
Posted: Thu January 22, 2009 12:00 am

INTERNATIONAL. When Barack Obama was sworn in as the country’s first first African-American president, the new president was  as different from his predecessor George W Bush and his team of 'old school' politicians as an iPhone is from a rotary dial telephone. And if you’re wondering how he did it, you’re not alone.

Political experts around the world are asking the same question. How did a young US Senator, called “inexperienced” by some and “too liberal” by others, convince so many Americans that he was the man who could lead the country through one of its most difficult times in history?

One of the keys to understanding President Obama’s stunning electoral victory, say authors Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta, is his savvy mastery of  Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

“Obama wasn’t the only candidate to use Web 2.0 tools during the election campaign,” says Fraser, co-author with Dutta of 'Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World'. But he was the only candidate to master it and use platforms like Facebook and YouTube to appeal to a new generation of web-savvy voters. He is the first occupant of the White House to have won a presidential election on the web.”

“It is clear that Obama knew exactly what he was doing and how to be successful at it,” adds Dutta. “He brought in a 24-year-old Facebook co-founder, who helped him develop his web blitzkrieg. He left no Web 2.0 stone unturned, from social networking sites to podcasting to mobile messaging and as a result he created an ‘e-ruption’ not only in American politics but throughout the world.”

In their groundbreaking book the authors explore the connected new world that helped make Obama’s rise to the Oval Office possible. It is the first book written for a wide audience about the powerful trend that is reshaping our lives: the Web 2.0 social networking revolution. The authors examine the powerful forces behind the social e-revolution, detailing often absurd and powerful reactions to it as well as making predictions about its long-term consequences. (In case you’re wondering, the book takes its title from a popular Facebook widget, sheep-throwing, which serves as one of many ways members playfully interact with their online friends).

 “The 2008 election campaign marks a rupture with the past not only because the web was used by candidates to mobilise voters and raise money, but more importantly because the web became a platform for spontaneous citizen engagement in the political process” says Fraser.

“The sites and web communities themselves also got involved. The ‘Yes We Can’ video on YouTube was not made by the Obama campaign, but by a hip-hop star who produced it and uploaded it onto the web. The video quickly went viral and before Obama won the election it had been viewed 20 million times. These powerful Democracy 2.0 are transforming politics and may soon bring profound changes to the way governments interact with citizens. A new era of e-democracy and e-government is dawning.”

Reader’s Digest dubbed the 2008 presidential election the 'Facebook Election' due to voter mobilisation by all the candidates on that social networking site. During the election, Facebook launched its own political forum to encourage online debates about voter issues. In what might be an indicator of how new and old media will work together in the future, Facebook teamed up with ABC News for election coverage and forums and CNN teamed up with YouTube to hold presidential debates.

 So, what’s the reason for the Web 2.0 'e'-ruption into politics? 

“In modern democracies, it’s very hard for common, everyday citizens to make themselves heard, unless large groups of them take to the streets,” says Dutta.

“In the book we suggest what we saw with the recent election might be an indicator that the Internet, and specifically social networking sites, will make the emergence of a new citizen-empowered Democracy 2.0 possible. To be heard all you’ll need is an online presence, and today that is easier than ever to create.”

If you’re reluctant to believe that the times are changing all that fast, here’s a look at how and why social networking will change the business of American politics.

It allows candidates to skip the media. The two presidential candidates received their fair share of positive and negative coverage from the media. But when it came to getting out the exact message he wanted, Obama didn’t have to rely on the mainstream media. He had 2 million supporters on Facebook to John McCain’s 600,000 that he could easily reach with updates to his page and 112,000 supporters on Twitter to McCain’s 4,600, not to mention the extensive direct email list of supporters that received daily updates from the big players in his campaign including his wife, Michelle Obama. Obama’s YouTube channel attracted more than 18 million visits, while McCain’s channel attracted barely more than 2 million.

“Sites like YouTube allowed Obama to reach people in a way that he would never have been able to achieve solely through media coverage,” says Fraser.

It’s cheap and cost-effective. In Democracy 2.0, political candidates can reach more people with less money. Take Obama’s online advertising spending, for example. His campaign spent less than US$8 million on online spending, much of which went to adwords by Google. The campaign also spent US$467,000 on Facebook. What about TV advertising? Those numbers are a little bigger. It was widely reported that the half-hour TV special that aired in the final week of the election cost US$4 million, but according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group the Obama campaign spent a whopping US$235,974,838 on broadcasting TV ads. While both his online campaign and TV ad campaign were crucial to his getting elected, there’s no denying that you can make your dollars go a little farther online, a fact that opens up the political game to many more players. 

The web is low-cost but high-reach, which makes it a great tool for campaigning. The Pew Research Center found that 46% of Americans used the web, email or text messaging for news about the presidential campaign, to contribute to the debate, or to mobilise others. Some 35% of Americans said they’d watched online political videos, three times more than during the 2004 presidential election (before YouTube was created). And roughly 10% said they’d logged on to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to engage in the election.

“Web 2.0 seems to be an attractive way for people to get involved with what’s going on politically, and it’s cheap enough that you don’t have to have millions or billions of dollars if you want to use it to make a name for yourself in the political world,” says Dutta.

“Web 2.0 could very well be the platform that reinvigorates political debate, fosters civic engagement and allows grassroots movements outside the political duopoly of Democrats and Republicans to gain in popularity.”

It makes grassroots fundraising highly effective. In June 2008, reversing a previous stance, Obama announced that he wouldn’t accept public financing and the restraints that come with it to run his campaign. The decision caused uproar from the Republicans and raised more than a few eyebrows in his own party.

As a New York Times article at the time put it: “His decision to break an earlier pledge to take public money will quite likely transform the landscape of presidential campaigns, injecting hundreds of millions of additional dollars into the race and raising doubts about the future of public financing for national races.”

“Obama’s team speculated that he could bring in US$200 to US$300 million for the general election,” says Fraser. “And indeed, through online donations alone he was able to raise over US$500 million. And of that US$500 million more than came US$160 million came from supporters who gave comparatively tiny amounts of US$200 or less. These numbers prove once again that without a grasp of Web 2.0 and the fundraising capabilities it offers political candidates will not be able to compete in the future.”

Candidates can effectively mobilize supporters. The vision of a networked, participatory, activist democracy is not a techno-utopia. It’s precisely what Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed in America nearly two centuries ago: a robust civil society and egalitarian spirit that motivated citizens to engage in all manner of voluntary associations. The prospect, nearly two hundred years later, of harnessing these vigorous public-spirited energies not only in America but throughout the world, is surely a vision that should be encouraged.

“Obama harnessed the energies of his supporters in many ways,” says Dutta. “He used an iPhone app that allowed supporters to feel politically engaged while spreading pro-Obama messages to their contact list. He used Twitter and text messaging to tell supporters who his VP would be before the media even knew. And he used a direct email campaign with messages that constantly encouraged supporters to volunteer and donate money to the campaign. As a result, his supporters felt like they were part of the campaign and transferred that feeling of inclusion into action. They canvassed. They made calls. They convinced their friends and family that Obama was the man for the job.

“Essentially the people Obama was reaching through social networking went out and helped him reach the people who he couldn’t reach through social networking,” adds Dutta. “While some of this could have happened without a web presence, it likely wouldn’t have been enough to get him elected, and it certainly wouldn’t have manifested in the fervent support that he sees among his biggest supporters today.”

It facilitates civic engagement and creates social capital. In most modern democracies voter turnout is alarmingly low and political life is the business of a small minority. The vast majority has opted for passive exit from the political process, resorting to voice only in times of crisis or momentous import. However, citizens show more loyalty to a political system, and feel more compelled to engage in civic activity, when they have confidence that their voice is heard and represented.

“Obama’s supporters were able to make their voice heard through their Facebook profiles, their Tweets, or by signing up to receive his email updates,” says Fraser.

“His embrace of Web 2.0 social networking opportunities closed the sense of disconnect between him and his followers and gave them a way to be heard; which, in turn, made them more fervent in their support and more likely to go out and spread the word.

“As voters massively shift toward the Internet for social interaction, consumer purchasing, and political participation, office-seekers are wisely rushing to establish an online presence and connect with voters on the ground,” says Dutta.

“Given the power of Web 2.0—socially, commercially, and organisationally—there can be no doubt that it will, inevitably, produce an e-ruptive impact on our political institutions. And if the values of democracy prevail, we can be reassured that it will bring about a better world.”

Visit the book’s website to view a captivating and informative video about the book and also to get a sneak peak at the book’s table of contents, preface, and first chapter.

Note: Matthew Fraser, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at INSEAD. He completed graduate studies at the London School of Economics, Oxford University (Nuffield College), Université de Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, where he earned a doctorate in political science. He is the author of several books, including 'Weapons of Mass Distraction: Soft Power and American Empire' (2005). A recognized media industries expert with long experience as an academic and journalist, he was Editor-in-Chief of Canada’s national daily newspaper, National Post, and co-hosted a prime-time national television show, 'Inside Media', on Canada’s public all-news network, CBC Newsworld.

Soumitra Dutta, PhD, is Roland Berger Chaired Professor of Business and Technology at INSEAD. He obtained his doctorate in computer science and his MSc. in business administration from the University of California at Berkeley. At INSEAD, he is the faculty director of elab@INSEAD, a centre of excellence in the digital economy. His research focus is on technology and innovation strategy at both corporate and national policy levels. His books include seven editions of 'The Global Information Technology Reporters' (2002-2008),'Innovating at the Top' (2008), 'The Bright Stuff' (2002), and 'Embracing the Net' (2001). A popular speaker and a fellow of the World Economic Forum, he has presented numerous high level conferences around the world.

This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge (

Copyright INSEAD 2009.



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