Net creeps into political arena

The recent Republican National Convention stood as a proving ground of sorts for technology and the Internet, which have moved from being a novelty in the 1996 race in the US to becoming a critical tool in the 2000 elections.

The recent Republican National Convention stood as a proving ground of sorts for technology and the Internet, which have moved from being a novelty in the 1996 race in the US to becoming a critical tool in the 2000 elections.

Since the last general election, more voters have moved online and toward broadband hook-ups, a fact that has led to a fundamental change in the way campaigns are run. Likewise, technology is affecting the way politics is covered by the media and perceived by the public.

"There were a lot of people talking about the intersection between democracy and the Internet," says president of the New York-based Web site E-thepeople.com, Alex Sheshunoff.

"There were not a lot of people writing the code to make that happen. We and others sat down and talked about how to do that."

The mere existence of Sheshunoff's grass roots political site - which bills itself as a "virtual town hall" where users can sign petitions, contact elected officials and discuss issues - points to the degree to which Internet technology has entwined itself with the needs of users and vice versa.

To keep its users happy, E-thepeople.com has had to beef up its political content. The site offered ongoing coverage of the convention and plans to do the same for the Democratic gathering this week, while continuing to feed its site with real-time information right through to the November 7 election.

This kind of demand for quick information from new-media sources has, for many vendors, helped fuel a new market developing around the political process.

For instance, new media giant MSNBC started using a thin-client computing infrastructure from California-based Wyse Technology to cut down on the number of technology support staff the news organisation needed to deploy to the Republican convention.

"A couple of months back, we had planned to send 45 laptops to the convention. To do that, I would have sent four people to maintain them. This way we only sent one," says IT director at MSNBC, Jonathan Chow.

MSNBC, based in New York, also armed its Internet reporters with wireless email units from Blackberry. Using this technology, correspondents walked the convention floor, posing questions submitted by MSNBC's Internet audience.

Meanwhile, a group called the Commission on Presidential Debates has wrapped in the efforts of vendors AT&T, Sun Microsystems, 3Com and Harris Interactive to invite all Internet users to send in topics for the upcoming candidates' debates.

This kind of interaction is not limited to the conventions.

According to a study by E-advocates and Juno Online Services, almost half of all voters intend to use the Internet to help make their choice this November. And public awareness sites such as E-thepeople.com and Grass

roots.com will continue to add users and services.

In further evidence of new media's influence, a majority (about 64%) of people using the Internet to solidify voting decisions say they will trust information they obtained over the Internet more than information they received from television.

Washington-based E-advocates' research also indicates that citizens want to use the Internet to contact their elected representatives, government officials and agencies. "With someone like CNN, either their online site or on TV, there's a certain credibility there," says a director at E-advocates, Pam Fielding. "But the Internet does level that playing field."

The rise of the new media began in the 1996 election when vendors such as Web-hosting service supplier Exodus Communications were rushed by MSNBC and others.

In the 2000 election, it is the politicians and their staff who have ramped up their use of the Web, say officials at California-based Exodus. Exodus this year is hosting the official Web sites of both 2000 presidential contenders.

"We are beginning to see more and more Internet appliances at use in the homes and elsewhere. It is only natural that technology is going to creep in to the political space as well," says director of product marketing at Exodus, Chris Richter.

And technology's impact on politics won't likely stop at the election. The public will clamour increasingly for more government online services. And the industry will watch, with a wary eye, the federal government's hand in regulating the Internet, Fielding says.

"There is a growing online democracy, and in the bigger scope of things everybody is watching with bated breath things that happen with the government that could affect improved services online," Fielding says.

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