The Internet and the Political Process: 16 Years Later

NEWS ANALYSIS: Sixteen years after I wrote the first book on the Internet and politics, I went back for a look at how things have changed. I wasn't encouraged.

During the thick of the 1996 presidential campaign, I followed the candidates and their communications staffs around the country reporting on their use of the then-nascent World Wide Web. I also followed smaller campaigns and the activities of pressure groups. I reported for a different publication in those days, but my efforts eventually resulted in a book, Politics on the Nets that described how political groups, especially the major candidates and parties, were taking advantage of the Internet.

What I found then was that groups that didn't have a lot of money had great Websites. I also found that a few groups and parties from all parts of the political spectrum were reaping the benefits of this new medium. Particularly notable were Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who was in a tough re-election battle, and the National Rifle Association, which was trying to get its message out despite a news media culture that it perceived was against it. The groups that either had plenty of money, or didn't feel threatened, really didn't bother. Then-President Bill Clinton had a static Web page that was nearly as boring as mine.

Since that time, the Web has become a major medium that can't be ignored, and it isn't. President Barack Obama has an attractive Website that has a lot to look at (if you scroll down far enough), a lot of cool Java features and a place to donate money, which has become ubiquitous these days. On the other hand, former Massachusetts governor and Republican nominee Mitt Romney has an attractive Website that has a lot to look at (if you click on the right buttons), cool Java features and a place to donate money. Both are mostly red, white and blue.

If there is a difference between the content on the sites, it's that Romney remembered Sept. 11, which was the day I looked at the candidates' sites, and had a note about the solemnity and the tragedy, while Obama did not.

If it sounds like there's not a lot of difference between the sites, you'd be right. In fact, if you're not reading carefully, you could mistake one for the other. If the candidates' Websites are any indication, there seems to be a remarkable similarity to them, as if the campaigns have decided that there's a formula to political sites, and they both applied it. Or perhaps both sides used the same Web designer.

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...