As I am getting down to writing this article, a commercial on the pre-inauguration party in honor of Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial runs on my TV and is faintly heard from the background. Following that, comes another announcement on the live coverage of the inauguration ceremony of January 20th. A few hours earlier, I had received in my inbox an e-mail singed by Obama himself with thoughts and words of gratitude ahead of the big day… Strangely, I am in Greece and nowhere near Washington, DC; also, the events above were announced by leading Greek channels and not by some major US TV network…

Incidents such as these remind me of the tech-frantic atmosphere on the US Election Day a few weeks ago, in November 2008. Although I had lived that day from Belgium, Europe, it was hard not noticing the momentum of Mr. Obama and his front-running towards the office of the US President; it was covered live by all media! A race that began with minimum speed some years ago in Chicago, IL in order to culminate in full speed and lots of records and originalities in that very same city on November 4th 2008. Over the span of these months, I had travelled to the US only once. Yet I was in the know of all Obama’s achievements, controversies, promises and his campaign’s twists and turns as if I was following closely; me along with millions of supporters all over the globe. The key words explaining this paradox are:Internet and hi-tech politics.

President Obama’s candidacy was sky-rocketed in fame and popularity thanks to, among others, a series of improvising uses of the Internet, e-mail and new technologies in order to reach the widest possible network of voters in all 52 States plus the global public opinion. So has his newly started presidency been designed: as political commentators emphatically put it, it will be the most tech-savvy Office to date. Yet, this e-originality has also given rise to certain inhibitions as to its effects, methods and potential outreach…

Use blogging and rich media to talk directly to citizens frequently and in real time
President Obama has proven even during his pre-election campaign that possesses (himself or his team) all the know-how and mentality in using services such as YouTube, Facebook or blogs in their best interest. What if they decide to take advantage of the database of supporters they already have in their hands (with personal data, such as e-mail or address details for each of them) and mass-mail them on a regular basis with a videocast featuring the President or commentaries published on a blog of his? Just as pioneering this idea may be, it also raises serious concerns as to the legitimacy of using people’s private data through such a political platform. Equally pressing is the (superficially simplistic yet politically substantial) question of whether Mr. Obama as President will (or should) have enough time to blog or videocast himself or if it would be meaningful to have these communication policies implemented by an army of public opinion agents instead…

Win congressional support for your agenda through social networking
Just as overwhelming was the half-an-hour televised message that Mr. Obama’s team aired a few days before the Election could also be some orchestrated efforts from his office in order to attract public attention on thorny issues that will have to be debated and approved at the Congress and for which the necessary in-house majority cannot be taken for granted. However, who can deny inhibitions that such campaigns might end up with a demagogic nature and replace or disarm constitutional processes with these coordinated and targeted public opinion maneuvering efforts..? On the other hand, it would be just as persuasive if Mr. Obama would counter-answer that, through methods such as the above, he diligently fulfils a pressing demand from all modern politicians, which is staying in touch with the citizens on a face-to-face basis and as frequently as possible.

Be prepared for citizens holding you accountable on the basis of your virtual footprints
This particular one may well be a concern that should primarily bother members of the President’s cabinet themselves yet, on second thought, it can also have a serious social outreach. By promoting your entire agenda over the Internet and, even more, by concluding gentlemen’s agreements with your voters through your blog or personal website, it ultimately means that these commitments will have an e-trace lasting forever or, at least, as long as the world wide web continues to exist. Consequently, it would not be unreasonable to expect that Mr. Obama could sooner or later face a public outcry fueled by his very internet footage, should this have turned into empty words and broken promises. Moreover, is the White House ready and impervious enough to face civic criticism in the raw and blatant way that many times members of the Internet community use to express their disapproval? If you still don’t get
what I mean, just take a look at the negative comments posted under any political ad available on YouTube; surely, not of a very politically correct nature…

Your effective use of the Internet has reshaped people’s perception of their own political effectiveness
Therefore, President Obama can expect to have as strong political pressure online as he will surely face in the House of Representatives and even more drastic in the first case. Besides, since he was the first to expose how powerful a tool for politics the Web can be, he should expect that his own ‘invention’ could well turn at his expense just as all successful and innovative practices do in the ever-fluctuating world of politics.

Can you integrate all these into a secure model of government?
It’s good to take politics one step further and just as good to devise ways for attracting active citizen involvement in a modern platform of government. Nevertheless, there already are and will surely grow fears for the security and efficacy of this platform and the defenses fortifying it. In other words, how secure it is to air your projected tactics on Facebook and organize public polls on them or openly talk about them via YouTube or videos streaming directly to thousands of Blackberries of your supporters? President Obama’s office will have to calm down voices stating that it is not exactly the cleverest tactic to publicly announce that you are going after Al Qaeda, just because you ring the alarm for them to watch out..! Additionally, being a pioneer in Internet politics a White House under Obama will need to ease concerns from the inland and abroad that since technologies such as the Blackberry are being developed by ‘their own guys’, they will not exploit the know-how they possess in order to compromise the use of these technologies by other governments worldwide – the French government has already panicked in this sense and blocked the use of Blackberries by its officials…

As I am concluding these lines, the inauguration party for President Obama is well underway and a bunch of high-profile Americans praise his virtues and promised change in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Undoubtedly in a few hours from now, this footage will be available online for anyone across the globe to see and judge, watch and criticize, approve or disapprove. Whether this promised change will trulymaterialize, we’ll be able to tell in four years. We can already say though that Barack Obama conceptualized a new mode of 21st century participatory politics by deploying such common means as the e-mail or text messaging. If this new concept of politics can legitimately lead to change, it is up for you, American voters and citizens of the world to decide. So, broadcast yourselves… (sic)

As it appears in Spring 2009 issue of Princeton University’s ‘Business Today’ magazine.

Advertisements