Campaigns' Use of Internet Examined

In a photograph that circulated in an e-mail last spring, Fidel Castro holds up a poster emblazoned with President-elect Barack Obama’s face, the words “I love this guy!” superimposed above Castro’s head.

Despite the e-mail’s subject line—”Fidel Castro endorses Obama”—the former Cuban president had done no such thing. The image was a doctored advertisement aimed at Cuban-American voters circulated by the Florida Republican Party.

In a presentation at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society yesterday, government Professor D. Sunshine Hillygus showed this advertisement and others, arguing that the Internet has not only changed how politicians campaign, but also what they tell voters.

Hillygus focused on data from the 2004 election to describe the political strategy of “microtargetting,” in which candidates take stances on divisive issues using direct mail and e-mail advertisements, like the purported Castro endorsement, that are tailored to specific voters.

“The information environment has changed not only the style of campaigning but also the substance,” Hillygus said. “Candidates are willing to take positions on more divisive issues than ever before.”

Hillygus’ book, “The Persuadable Voter,” published earlier this year, examines how candidates try to attract voters who agree with one candidate on some issues, and the other candidate on others.

Given last night’s results, Obama’s use of technology in his advertising campaign seems to have proven more effective.

“Obama had an advantage in that he was able to use new technology in a creative way,” Hillygus said after her talk, which was part of the weekly Berkman Luncheon Series.

Obama used his fundraising advantage over Republican candidate John McCain to buy advertisements in online video games, including the racing game “Burnout Paradise” and role-playing game Second Life.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain also had an avatar on Second Life, but Obama supporters playing Second Life painted virtual graffiti and virtually double-parked in front of McCain’s virtual apartment, according to Hillygus.

Such advertising was less effective for McCain because his constituency was less likely to play video games, she said.