François Heinderyckx

2. icT s and The o bama 08 campaign : a criTical overview

2.3 T he use of icT s for deploymenT of ( privileged ) informa -


The targeted, swift and timely circulation of information was a crucial asset of the Obama campaign. With the full range of communication channels available thanks to the latest information and communication technolo-gies (Delany, 2009), the campaign was able to reach the broad community of supporters. Messages either conveyed key information or boosted mo-tivation at crucial moments in the campaign. Because these channels were diverse and, to some extent, individualised, messages could be tailored to the information needs of the different actors of the campaign. These channels ranged from websites (including thematic portals and social net-working websites) to e-mailing (more than a billion messages were fed to some 13 million addresses), extending beyond internet technologies to mobile telephony, and more particularly text-messaging (5 to 20 messages per month were sent to the million mobile phone numbers which were registered through the campaign). This sleek dissemination arsenal was decisive in at least two ways. First, it allowed some level of control over the perception and the framing of the campaign. This was particularly ef-fective when messages needed to be sent swiftly regarding an emerging issue, controversy or smear before it reached the media. Supporters thus received first-hand, unfiltered and untampered information, its framing controlled by the campaign team, before any significant fact or contro-versy started flooding the public space with its customary share of distor-tion, errors, rumours and attempts at reinterpretation and destabilisation.

Second, this dense (but hopefully not overwhelming) flow of messages reinforced among militants a sense of belonging to the inner circle, an ex-hilarating feeling of being part of an elite that enjoyed privileged channels of communication with core campaign organisers, and even occasionally with Barack Obama himself.

196 media and communicaTion sTudies inTervenTions and inTersecTions

2.4 T



sfor organisaTionofThecampaign

The very practical organisation of the campaign is not extensively docu-mented, but there is little doubt that here again, new media played a cen-tral role. Campaigners found online the resources and the tools to guide and maximise their action while providing them with a large degree of autonomy: lists of phone numbers to call, addresses of undecided vot-ers in their neighbourhoods, newspapvot-ers or other institutions to contact and speak out to, brochures and posters to print, priority areas for cam-paigning, testimonies and talking points. The organisational part of the campaign’s e-machinery also included features enhancing a stimulating sense of competition: levels of campaign activity could be compared on different parameters and individuals achieving set levels of activity were granted a higher rank with corresponding privileges, such as access to additional tools to organise their teams. Overall, the campaign excelled in converting enthusiasm into action by inviting supporters to engage in their own field operations following simple instructions and giving them a sense of purpose.

2.5 T



sfor campaignfundraising

The very successful fundraising spectacularly confirmed the effectiveness of the internet in this area, as shown previously, and most famously, by the Howard Dean campaign in 2003. This is a particular case of the known capacity of the internet for aggregating small, scattered efforts from a large number of individuals tantamount to a staggering cumulated force.

In the case of the Obama campaign, small donations were numerous and often repeated, in part as a result of insistent invitations to donate (again) using the various information channels described above. Not only did this strategy bring in unprecedented levels of funds, it also gave a strong popular legitimacy to the financial means gathered (and alongside to the candidate thus supported), given that these small donations were implic-itly from the middle and lower classes. Traditionally, the exorbitant funds for campaigning are provided above all by the well-off and by vested in-terests. It is, in more than one way, another example of the ‘long tail’ effect of the internet.

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3. c


Lessons learnt from recent political campaigns tend to encourage politi-cal actors to engage in digital campaigning of some kind. Yet, the mere correlation between the well-thought-out use of up-to-date technologies and electoral success does not tell us much about how the increased use of ICTs may induce a systemic shift in such crucial areas as political engage-ment, political opinion formation and election behaviour. Research is only beginning to explore these questions from the point of view of citizens, prolonging a lengthy and controversial string of research into media ef-fects on political behaviour. For example, Zhang and al. (2010) find that social networks users tend to show higher levels of civic participation, but not of political participation, the latter still being driven primarily by inter-personal discussions (Zhang, 2010: 86-87). Likewise, young people seek-ing news on social network websites are not better informed about politics and not more inclined towards political participation (Baumgartner and Morris, 2010: 38). A Pew survey found that although some 60 per cent of US internet users said they were engaged in sharing or receiving informa-tion about the campaign, less than 40 per cent said they were communicat-ing with others about politics uscommunicat-ing the internet (Smith, 2009). This would indicate that the ‘online political users’, to use the phrase coined by the Pew Center, are more prone to share bits of information about the election than they are to engage in actual political discussion online.

Politics, democracy, elections, engagement and trust are typically in a per-manent state of flux. Alterations are driven by the larger context and com-munication technologies are no more than one among many factors mak-ing up that context. To claim that innovation in technology drives change is to overlook that context and to succumb to technological determinism.

But to downplay the decisive role of technology by cautiously assuming that it does not really make much difference as compared to other factors is to neglect a key link in the chain of events making up the very fabric of political activities. Looking back at the still very short history of digital political communication, there are strong signs of structural changes not merely in the tools and media, but in the disturbance of power structures and distribution, such as the shift from a few major financial donors to many small contributors, or a shift from well established influential politi-cal institutions to new aggregates of activists developing their own ideo-logical platforms along with powerful means to disseminate their views.

Examples include, which started in 1998 as an attempt to gather support for Bill Clinton during his impeachment procedure

(fol-198 media and communicaTion sTudies inTervenTions and inTersecTions

lowing the Monica Lewinsky scandal), and has since gained momentum and started a life of its own, bringing its own spin to the public space.

Similarly, the same community that supposedly brought Barack Obama to the White House later joined, to a certain extent, the opposition forces, holding him accountable for his campaign promises and as such interfer-ing strongly with the Obama administration’s policies and actions. The irreducible top-down dynamics of political leadership must learn how to cohabit with an ever stronger plethora of bottom-up, grassroots initiatives – to tame them and embrace them, with all their versatility and instability, or bear the consequences.



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In document Media and Communication Studies Intersections and Interventions. The intellectual work of ECREA's 2010 European media and communication doctoral summer school (Page 195-200)