The 2008 U.S. Presidential Election and New Digital Technologies: Political Campaigns as Social Movements and the Significance of Collective Identity

Article excerpt

Abstract

The growing role of the Internet social networking sites (SNS) has served as a flash point for debate about the democratization of information, particularly in light of their perceived roles in the 2008 presidential election. This horizontal sharing of information undoubtedly facilitated the revival of the youth vote and volunteerism in many ways mimicking traditional grassroots approaches. While the role of the Internet SNS in mobilization efforts and information-sharing cannot be overstated, its effectiveness in creating a new "public sphere," or transforming traditional electoral campaign strategies and communicative practices must be closely examined before generalizations about the democratization of media can be confirmed. In the aftermath of the election, theorists were quick to simplistically identify the use of social networking sites as key to this electoral shift. In this paper we attempt to advance contemporary theorizing of new media and institutional politics by examining specifically how and if ICTs (information communication technologies) and new media platforms are shifting the balance of power in terms of organization and mobilization away from the professional model and toward more democratic and bottom-up efforts. Reconceptualizing some of the basic theories of social movements and collective behavior this paper seeks to address questions such as: how are digitally enabled forms of mobilization affecting who becomes a participant; how do they affect organizational structure and leadership; how do they impact the dynamics of collective action; how do we address the powerful yet ephemeral effect of e-tactics established for short-term gains; can mobilizations succeed without collective identity and/or do we need new categorizations for collective identity; and whether e-tactics serve as a gateway for future participation.

Keywords

Political Campaigns

Social Media

Collective Behavior

The 2008 U.S. presidential election and the Obama campaign in particular, were exceptional for many reasons. Four of the most notable were that for the first time an African American was voted into office, it was organized in many ways like a social movement, young voters turned out to the polls in the highest numbers since 1972, and it was also arguably the first "social media" election given the role of the Internet and other new digital technologies. The centrality of new media to the campaign is best expressed with the "Be the First to Know" registration site that first released news of Obama's running mate via a text message. The August 28 text from Obama to his supporters read: "Breaking news: the text message is out and it's official... Barack Obama has selected Joe Biden to be his running mate" (Davy, 2010). This paper will explore the relationship between Obama's nomination and new media forms used during the campaign, foregrounding how the Obama team attracted younger voters, and how they were mobilized to participate in the election. Furthermore, this paper will look at traditional social movement theory to determine how digitally enabled forms of mobilization affect media production and consumption patterns of the participants, how they affect organizational structure and leadership, and how they impact the dynamics of collective action. While the integration of new media forms provides the platform through which to analyze new communicative patterns that have been deployed by campaign strategists capitalizing on technologies aligned with horizontal information flow-through, and the rise of the "prosumer" (Toffler, 1980), this paper shows mobilization is still largely structured in a traditional top-down hierarchy. Yet by capitalizing on content of "hope" and "change," transmitted through new media forms which privileged horizontal information flows, the Obama Campaign specifically appealed to, and mobilized the millennial demographic.

The growing role of SNS's such as Facebook or MySpace and web 2. …