Presidential Candidates Keep Forgetting the Web Is Always Watching

NEWS ANALYSIS: It’s now 16 years since I wrote a book about how political organizations can use the Internet, and it’s clear that politicians are still making the same dumb mistakes. Except now those mistakes are amplified many times over on the now-ubiquitous Web.

I spent a year following presidential candidates around the U.S. in 1996 to learn how well politicians were using the Internet to get their messages across to voters. I also spent time with other campaigns at all levels of government and I got to know a wide variety of pressure groups from all segments of the political spectrum.

In those days the campaigns and the politicians who run them sometimes grasped the real power of the Internet. Sometimes it was their campaign staffs that figured it out and sometimes they simply didn’t have a clue.

But 16 years have passed since I wrote Politics on the Nets. By now you’d think that somewhere along the line the politicians would have learned how to make the most of the Internet in their campaigns and how to keep the Web from destroying a promising candidacy. You’d be thinking wrong.

So now, just in time for the beginning of the presidential and vice presidential debates, I’m looking again at some basic rules for politics and the Internet. Perhaps this time candidates will start paying attention to the reach and potential power of a really connected society. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Rule 1: There’s no such thing as a comment on background or an off-the-record conversation. This has always been true, but back in the print days it didn’t really matter that much. But it does now when every gaffe and misstep is certain to be recorded and posted on YouTube, and every embarrassing photo is certain to be Tweeted globally within minutes.

This is the mistake that Republican candidate Mitt Romney made with his “47 percent” comment that he thought was in a private, off-the-record briefing. With more than two people present, he should have known better. His staff should have known better. Instead, this single comment could cost him the election.

Barack Obama has also had his share of gaffes, but so far they haven’t happened since the campaign has started in full force. Does this mean that the Democrats are more savvy? Probably not. It just means that we haven’t seen one yet. But there’s still time before the election.

Rule 2: One of the reasons that candidates and other political groups love the Internet is that they believe that it gives them unfiltered access to their supporters. “Unfiltered access” is political code for avoiding the media. But politicians need to remember that to be unfiltered the access has to work in two directions. Candidates that use the Internet to reach out to their supporters also need to let their supporters reach them.

The candidate who does this can be successful, as former Vermont governor Howard Dean found out when he launched a populist campaign in which his supporters were heavily engaged. But Dean forgot about the next rule of Politics on the Internet when he got carried away in Iowa, making some people think he might be nuts when he started to scream from the podium.

Rule 3: The Internet can amplify anything a candidate says. But It’s the really dumb things that are amplified the most. This is one area where the Internet has changed everything. In the past, presidents and other politicians have regularly said things they regretted. You’ll remember when then President Ronald Reagan joked about bombing Russia and how that comment caused a real furor for about a day—maybe two. Then it died down.

The difference was that Reagan made his remark before the Web existed, so the comment made the rounds on the evening news and that was it. There was no YouTube to perpetuate and amplify what Reagan had said. Now, when a politician makes a dumb comment, it lands on YouTube, goes global and it bounces around the Internet until some bigger event knocks it down.

An example of how that works was when former Sen. George Allen (R-Va) leveled a derogatory name at a campaign volunteer working for his opponent and suggested that he wasn’t even an American (the volunteer was in fact born in Virginia), forcing Allen to make a public apology. But the video of the remark rocketed around the Internet for the remainder of the campaign, and likely cost Allen the election. Republican Allen, who is trying again to get elected, hasn’t made such a mistake since.

We’ve always known that politicians can make mistakes, so that’s no surprise. We also know that mistakes can make national news within minutes. But what seems to remain a mystery to most is how those goofs can get spread so widely so quickly. But it shouldn’t be a mystery, especially now.

In these days of campaigning where the Internet is everywhere and virtually every smartphone can record video and upload the video to YouTube or some other social networking service within minutes after it happened, candidates and their staffs should now assume that this is the rule rather than the exception.

The only way to operate these days is to assume that every word that’s uttered is public; that every mistake will be shown immediately; and that every stumble will be recorded. This is probably why Obama never seems to stray far from his teleprompter. It may also mean that more candidates and politicians should control themselves before speaking and to remind themselves that the whole world is probably listening.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...