New media has reshaped the face of politics, altering the way we perceive, discuss and support political platforms as well as changing the campaign trail to one that incorporates Internet and in-person interaction. Candidates can step off the soap box and take to the blogs, promoting their brand of politics online rather than just on the streets. They can disseminate newsletters to constituents via listservs, ask for donations over email and compile aggregate voting databases to target their messages to receptive audiences. New media technology allows candidates to sell themselves in a whole new way, and those that capitalize on the tools offered them, like Howard Dean, can reach far more audiences than those that rely solely on the megaphone.
Kreiss’ Taking Our Country Back argues that while scholars such as Alexander have demonstrated candidates’ ability to “rhetorically articulate civic values to win the consent of citizens” (Kreiss 26) through mass media, the focus of new media staffers is mobilization, not message. It presumes a candidate has a message, and instead focuses on getting that message out efficiently. Advancements in technology allow campaign staffers to rank potential voters according to receptiveness, based on voting history, past contributions and demographic data. It allows staffers to focus the ground game and the air war on sympathetic swing voters, ultimately delivering on what they think you want to hear. Kreiss recognizes that the increased electoral participation elicited by new media tools is “not designed for the ends of psychological growth, the development of civil skills, discovery of public interest, achieving democratic legitimacy, or community building,” (26) and it’s about here that I raise my ethical red flag.
This may just be my inner pessimist, but it could be argued that new media’s brand of “democracy” manipulates the message to please, delivering sweet nothings to sympathetic voters’ inboxes, RSS feeds and front doors. Campaigns, even without the addition of new media, fit squarely in the ethical grey area, ranked somewhere between door-to-door salesmen and PR practitioners. Candidates are trying to sell voters on their message, ultimately persuading enough people to vote them into office. New media provides the platform for them to do it on a grander scale, able to tailor their message more effectively and deliver to targeted individuals. Kreiss’ discussion of the power of new media, exemplified by Howard Dean and Barack Obama’s respective campaigns, introduce some cause for concern — in an ideal democracy, the average person makes educated decisions about how to vote based on the information they are given. But with the help of new media, candidates can deliver information they think you will care about, based on all kinds of data, and thus sway your vote. This is the nature of politics, facilitated by technological advancements, and one of the concepts behind the title of Kreiss’ book, Taking Our Country Back (26) — and rightfully so. Campaigns and democracy are inextricably linked, since campaigns are the driving force behind the electoral process, new media campaigning should foster democratic ideals. New media needs a makeover, redesigning campaigns to reflect public interest and democratic values.