Lessons from the Republican internet catch-up efforts

The way the Repubicans are trying to get to grips with improving their internet presence following last year’s Presidental election defeat suggest some interesting pointers for the UK. As I’ve often written in the past, US politics is very different from British politics – and so one should be cautious at reading across lessons from one country to another. Nonetheless, the Republicans efforts to catch-up do highlight what they feel are the most important areas.

Yesterday’s CNN report on the topic highlights two facets to this: the importance of Twitter and the degree to which a successful internet presence relies on senior figures being willing to move away from traditional modes of communication.

On Twitter, CNN said:

Liberal bloggers established online political activism, besting their conservative rivals during President George W. Bush’s eight years in office. But conservatives are now finding great success 140 characters at a time. Even this week, the conservative organization Club For Growth promoted their Twitter account on their $1.2 million ad campaign against health care…

And with major policy issues being debated and the midterm elections right around the corner, liberal bloggers acknowledge the GOP has the upper hand when it comes to using 140 character messages known as “tweets” to influence the discussion.

On the role of senior figures, CNN said:

When Republicans were in control of the largest bullhorn in the world – the White House – there was little impetus for conservative activists to exploit a platform to express their views.

“Conservatives have long had this inferiority complex in the online world,” said Matt Lewis, a conservative who writes for PoliticsDaily.com. “That is because Republicans have been in power when the blogosphere was invented.

The way in which senior Republicans, when in power, neglected the internet because of their ready access to other channels of communication seems to mirror the problems the Labour Party has faced, where its senior figures have generally been much more reluctant to embrace the internet than their equivalent rivals in other parties. It’s no coincidence that the ranks of high profile Labour internet converts are so heavily studied with former rather than current senior figures.

As one influential Labour blogger put it to me, “Cabinet members look at the viewing figures and think Newsnight is more important than blogging”. Whilst there’s  a grain of truth in that, it’s a view that ignores the importance of the internet in maintaining, growing and motivating a political party’s network of members and activists – and also ignores the frequency with which the mainstream media agenda ends up following what was said on line.

That’s a strategic question (to which the answer of course is that it should be a matter of both, not a false choice between one or the other), but on the tactical level it’s notable that the Republicans have decided Twitter is so important for them to try to level the online playing field.

If you look at some of the Republican tweets, especially those using the #tcot hashtag, there is a nasty vein of racism and extremism running through them (“FOOD 4 THOUGHT: Obama goes on vacation Aug 21. Muslim Ramadan starts Aug 21st” for example) but there are also some more subtle and effective uses of Twitter to circulate news and to promote particular lines and stories. That provides decent food for thought.

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This entry was posted in LDVUSA and Online politics.
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