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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Kreiss examines new media’s role in political campaigning

In January 2004, Daniel Kreiss was a master’s student at Stanford when Howard Dean’s campaign for the democratic presidential nomination reached the Iowa primary.

A journalism student interested in politics, Kreiss, now assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, watched the Web as Dean’s campaign used technology and online presence to organize support in a way that would radically change the way elections are conducted.

In 2000, the websites for Al Gore and George Bush were mostly print brochures with URLs. But Dean’s site had moving parts that gave his supporters the ability to participate with one another across geographic and demographic lines. Kreiss saw those supporters spreading Dean’s message through emails and blogs and arranging get-togethers through Meetup.com.

Some of Dean’s devotees were so impassioned, the media dubbed them “Deaniacs” and “Deanie Babies.”

The reporter in Kreiss, though low on cash and states away, knew he had a story at hand. He bought a plane ticket to Nebraska and drove the three hours to Sioux City to tag along with Dean volunteers he’d met online.

What he would find – and spend the next two elections following – is the subject of his new book, “Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics From Howard Dean to Barack Obama.”

“Campaigns need money and they need boots on the ground to knock on doors; they need people driving their message for them,” Kreiss said. “Dean’s campaign pioneered how you harness this incredible energy that revolves around candidates to make it work for you.”

A new network

Though Dean never made it to the White House, he became chair of the Democratic National Party in February 2005. His former staff stayed nearby, launching consulting firms and training organizations to teach and hone the tools they built, and to sharpen methods of cultivating supporters.

Kreiss said staffers working in broadcast communications and high donor fundraising struggled to get a handle on this new portion of the electorate who could use new media to canvass and create buzz in their own circles.

With each passing election, many of these same players have stayed involved with the party, perfecting tools and creating technology in the off years to reach and engage more voters the next time around.

“Campaigns want to reach out to folks who are supporting them and have those people pass on their message in their social networks,” Kreiss said. “There’s an idea that you’ll find it more credible as a voter to see information coming from one of your friends rather than a political campaign.”

After Dean’s unsuccessful presidential bid, this group brought new media to the Democratic Party and then to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Through mybarackobama.com, supporters could register as volunteers, create events, register voters and make calls no matter where they lived.

Whether new media get the credit for Obama’s 2008 win is up for debate, Kreiss said. What is clear is that electoral participation has risen steadily over the past decade, facilitated by the ease and speed of networked connections.

“Using new media has lowered the costs of doing things like volunteering and engaging in these sorts of civic activities,” Kreiss said. “More people can make phone calls or give small donations. It’s much more efficient in where you’re going to spend your resources.”

The data deluge

New media have enhanced a campaign’s capability to collect and leverage voter data, and to target voters based on what their activities say about them. The development and optimization of the Democratic Party’s voter database is one of Dean’s biggest legacies, Kreiss said.

“The Obama camp knocked on millions of doors in 2008. That data gets stored in a database,” he said. “They meld that with other information they have online about people, like what social networks they’re embedded in. Once you have that massive data set you can find patterns within it, and that shapes everything you do in the campaign.”

Campaigns use Internet browsing history, grocery store card purchases, spending habits, real estate records and hundreds of other points of data to optimize their approach.

An unregistered voter in a swing state might get a more general email, while someone who created a profile on Obama’s site may be asked to donate, Kreiss said. Sites test colors and copy to see what increases the likelihood of a specific voter taking a specific action.

“In 2008, Obama’s team designed over 2,000 different versions of their webpage alone,” Kreiss said.

Though many may not be aware of the extent to which their data is recorded, it’s nothing new, Kreiss said. In the early 1900s, William Jennings Bryan’s family helped create a file on voters based on the information in their letters of support. Direct mail has long been a way to profile people and infer political preferences from that information.

It isn’t behavioral theory, Kreiss said, it’s formula. “At the end of the day, what they care about is increasing the probability that you’re going to do x, y or z.”

Though this trend in new media might make voters feel duped, these tactics are often aimed at supporters who share the same goal as the campaign: electing their favored candidate. Even more, professional journalists still play a key role in making sure that voters are exposed to a wide range of political messages, Kreiss said.

“It’s still the professional journalists who have the resources for reporting, creating that content that’s being passed,” he said. “Intermediaries, like journalists, are oriented toward the public first and foremost.”

Cracking the code

Kreiss is looking at a busy election season as he investigates what’s different about 2012.

“For one thing, a lot more people are writing in public about elections,” Kreiss said.

This September, a non-partisan group called The PPL will provide a media infrastructure for bloggers, citizen journalists and independent media to report from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Kreiss will be on the ground interviewing those writers about audience, their roles in the media ecosystem and what sorts of tools they are using.

“If you don’t have access to the press room, how do you write about the convention? We’re trying to figure out if the stories and narratives they’re producing are qualitatively different from what the professional press is producing,” he explained.

He’s also planning to work on a project with ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, to dissect the process of targeted online ads and give voters an opportunity to see ads sparked by their data profiles.

Kreiss said it was important to be aware of these practices, think critically and turn to trusted sources.

“The Internet is not only embedded in the fabric of our lives, it is fast becoming the central way that we act and express ourselves as democratic citizens,” he said. “We all share the responsibility to make sure that we can have robust and inclusive political participation and debate.”