Will the Internet and Netizens Impact the 2004 US Presidential Election?

Online discussions in China and the netizens movement in South Korea have demonstrated the power of the internet

For a while Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic Party nomination in the US seemed to startle political observers (Der Herausforderer). His use of the Internet and his volunteer campaign staff of netizens were succeeding in unexpected ways to change campaigning procedures and practices. Many of his volunteers have been recruited via the Meetup.org online web site, and his campaign staff sponsors a Dean for America web site that allows readers to comment on his campaign articles. There are other web sites like blogforamerica.com which provide both articles from the Dean campaign and comments by supporters. Dean's campaign also surprised other contenders for the nomination by raising significant campaign funds online.

As the campaign for the Iowa caucus votes and then the New Hampshire primary gathered steam, the news media in the US is focusing less on the potential of the Internet to help candidates gain the Democratic Party nomination. Instead the conservative media organizations are encouraging the old means of campaigning that has led the Democratic Party to become increasingly harder to distinguish from the Republican Party. Negative or positive campaign ads on television, leaflets in mailboxes, newspaper and television editorials, and televised debates are forms of campaigning that bring the old guard of the major political parties back on the political stage they have dominated for so long. This is the kind of politics that led to the situation in the 2000 Presidential election where the distinction between the major party candidates was so slim that the Supreme Court was allowed to decide the election.

Can the Internet help overcome the barriers to defeating an incumbent in the 2004 US Presidential election? Observers of the role played in the South Korean Presidential election by Netizens and the Internet are wondering if the success of their efforts are a phenomena that can be repeated in the upcoming US Presidential election. In 2002, a South Korean netizens movement was able to effectively challenge the political old guard by waging an Internet campaign first to nominate and then elect Roh Moo-hyun as the South Korean President.

Netizens challenged the previous forms of campaign strategy. Critical to the success of the South Korean netizens was an online press that welcomed discussion of its articles by online users. Even more important, however, was the way it promoted the practice of "Every citizen a reporter."

The most notable of these is the media organization OhmyNews. This organization started online in February, 2000 with little money and four full time reporters. The publisher, Yeon-ho welcomed articles from volunteer reporters he called "citizen reporters". The online newspaper soon had contributions from 737 citizen reporters and the interest of a growing number of readers. By September 2003, the number of professional journalists working for OhmyNews had climbed to 53, and there were 26,700 citizen reporters contributing articles. Citizen reporters are paid a small fee for their articles. They contribute their articles to make OhmyNews a force to challenge the conservative news organizations that had previously monopolized Korean politics.

There is not a similar kind of news media organization in the US, though the different Democratic candidate campaigns, especially the Dean campaign, are using webblogs to promote communication among their supporters.

A recent event in China, however, demonstrates the power of participation online. Recently the Chinese online press described the death of a Chinese peasant and the injury of several others in Harbin, the capital of the Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China. The woman, Liu Zhongxia, was killed after a BMW driven by Su Xiuwen hit her. The BMW had had its rear mirror slightly damaged after Liu's husband Dai Yiquan, who was driving a tractor, swerved slightly to avoid hitting a vehicle that was coming into him on the narrow road.

The driver of the BMW got out of her car and reportedly threatened Dia and his wife. Then Su got back into her BMW, and instead of backing away from the accident, drove the car forward killing Liu and injuring several of the bystanders. The case went to court and the BMW driver was given a suspended sentence. The fact that none of those injured, or who had been bystanders testified at the trial, however, was part of the troubling circumstances that led to a public outcry over the events of this case. Dai and the others injured received cash settlements from the BMW driver's husband. In exchange, they agreed not to speak about the case.

Chinese netizens learned of the case, and the court verdict and began posting to Internet forums. Soon there were 70,000 comments on the news web site Sina.com, a famous Chinese web portal. By the second week in January, 2004, the Washington Post reports that there had been over 310,000 messages posted at the Sina portal, when the Chinese government had the site delete 20% of the messages as being too critical of the government. By Thursday, January 15, 2004, the 250,000 messages that remained were deleted as well. By this time, the case had achieved international attention. It had become a symbol of the growing gap between rich and poor in China and of the frustration among the Chinese population with the corruption in government accompanying the government's pro business policy.

Even in a country censoring Internet use, like China, netizens have demonstrated the power that online discussion forums can provide for the grassroots. Those discussing the BMW incident online, have been able to bring the case to the attention of the national and international media and are seeking to have the case retried.

Can the Dean campaign or the campaigns of other democratic candidates vying for the nomination tap this power of the Internet and of netizens to achieve what seems unachievable? An online press welcoming and encouraging citizen contributions of articles and discussion of those articles would help. In China, netizens are finding ways to counter the censorship of online discussion. In South Korea, netizens were able to create a vibrant online netizens movement to elect the candidate they supported to the South Korean Presidency. The upcoming election in the US is a challenge to US netizens to learn from the experience of others around the world and in the US to be able to tap the power of the Internet to make a significant impact on the 2004 Presidential election (see also by Ronda Hauben: Can the Internet Change Politics?). (Ronda Hauben)