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July 16, 2007

Politicians unleashed on the Internet

by Kiera Zitelman, Online Editor-in-Chief
The next presidential election is more than fifteen months away, but the battle is already being fiercely fought in ways unseen in any other election. The new weapons at the candidates' disposal: social network and video sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.

With over 210 million Americans with Internet access, according to Nielsen NetRatings, the Internet is becoming an increasingly powerful means to communicate, and candidates are struggling to use it to their advantage. While the presidential hopefuls all have their own sites, most seem to lack something important: their clearly stated views on the issues at hand.

As outlets for personal expression and free speech, social network sites are godsends. Registration is free on most, and creating a personal webpage is easy. Users can freely comment on other members' pages, as well as change their own as frequently as they like. There is little to no regulation, few watchdogs and hardly any rules. But now that these sites are being used to influence people's votes in a presidential race, they have the potential to backfire on the candidates.

Take Mitt Romney, for example. His Facebook, like many others, lists his hobbies and music interests. When candidates resort to listing favorite bands, books, movies and television shows to win over voters, their site looks more like a page ripped out of People magazine than an authentic campaign web site. While Romney, appearing like "one of the guys," is entertaining, his website is focused on style instead of substance, leaving little for the serious voter to ponder.

Hillary Clinton's MySpace page includes videos of her attempts at comedy, like telling viewers she desperately needs their advice in picking a campaign song. She also has clips of several homemade pro-Hillary song and dance videos. For the announcement of her campaign song choice, Clinton posted a YouTube video parodying the final episode of HBO's "The Sopranos." Clinton took a chance on softening her image, but this can just as easily be interpreted as a desperate attempt at appearing hip and knowledgeable, while avoiding the issues.

Since there is a long way to go before Election Day, some ground rules for candidate Internet usage need to be set before someone pulls the plug.
First: candidates need to list opinions and positions clearly on their page. Dennis Kucinich's MySpace is a perfect example. His views on the war in Iraq, health care, jobs and education are clearly stated and dominate his page.

Second: remove the "fluff." People are looking for the next President of the United States, not their college roommate. Take away the hobbies, the favorite quotes, the background music, the family vacation photos focus on what's important. It's okay to put on a little personal history, but people need to see what each candidate stands for.

Third: keep it short and simple. Most of the candidates' MySpace and Facebook pages are incredibly long. They need to be pared down partly for the candidate's advantage, because people are less inclined to read lengthy text, but also for the benefit of the people. Get to what really matters and what should really be communicated, in fewer words, and the readers will be less confused.

Undeniably, the Internet has become a major factor in politics, and most of the 2008 presidential candidates are already using it to their advantage. But one thing that candidates and citizens should agree on is that it is the issues that are important.



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