From Obama to Iran, Tech Ups the Political Ante

The information revolution is making elections anything but a sure bet

By Larry Gerston
|  Thursday, Jun 18, 2009  |  Updated 7:15 PM PDT
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From Obama to Iran, Tech Ups the Political Ante

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A supporter of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi protests Tehran, Iran. Iran banned foreign media from covering rallies in the country, but the Internet has let reports slip through.

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The dance between technology and politics is turning from modest waltz to wild tango. Old ways of transmitting information have been swept aside by new methods that penetrate societies more deeply than ever before, from America to Iran to China.

And while many of us are just now getting our hands around these changes, they are occurring at such swift speeds that technology always seem to be a step ahead of behavior—which is the underlying source of unpredictability.

Some recent examples:

  • The 2003 recall of California Governor Gray Davis.  Foes began the recall by funding a conventional signature drive.  But the campaign picked up speed when opponents created online websites with recall petitions that could be downloaded and distributed.  Just like that, door-to-door signature gathering and shopping center venues became obsolete.  The signatures were gathered, the recall election was held, and the rest, as Arnold Schwarzenegger can tell you, is history.
  • The 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama.  The biggest difference between Obama and John McCain was the way each candidate used the Internet.  McCain took lessons on how to use a computer.  Obama’s team created a highly interactive website, tapped into existing social networks, and made it easy to donate money. The Bank of Obama had an ongoing, deep revenue stream of cash and his supporters felt that they were part of the team.
  • Protests after the 2009 elections in Iran.  Not so long ago, oppressive regimes could control the flow of information by shutting down the local media and throwing out the foreign press.  No more.  In the wake of Iran’s recent presidential election, amateur video on YouTube, Facebook exchanges, and Twitter communications, have opened up these closed systems.  Now societies have access to information that they simply wouldn’t have otherwise.

Where will this all end?  Hard to know, but we do know these developments have consequences. 

First of all, the ability of virtually anyone to put something on the Web challenges us to determine credibility of the “information.”  For many, this new responsibility is difficult to accept; after all, the mainstream press once provided that filter. Who's who on Twitter? Celebrities are routinely faked there. It wouldn't be hard for government agents to pose as activists.

Second, governments are now at a crossroads.  China is so perplexed that it’s demanding all computers sold there contain software allowing the government to prevent “unacceptable” material from appearing on line.  Among those who believe in the free flow of information, this requirement is disconcerting to say the least.

The bottom line is this:  Politics today operate differently than ever before.  The “Information Age” has pushed the boundaries of communications in directions that many still don’t understand. Those who master the new rules will have an edge on everyone else until, of course, a new technological advance changes the rules again.

Larry Gerston, a profesor at San Jose State University and political analyst for NBC, has written several books about politics.

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