The other day at the end of my speech on citizen bloggers at the BlogCamp in Zurich, someone in the audience asked for my opinion on the impact of blogs on the 2008 US presidential election ("blogs" is here used as shorthand for a whole palette of communication and conversation tools, from youtube to twitter).
I said: "it will be huge, and lead to chaos".
That requires some explaining. The Web has played an increasing role in the US presidential campaigns ever since 1996. In 2004, blogs and MeetUp and online fund-raising were central in creating the illusion that Howard Dean was unstoppable, just to see him melt away as soon as he stepped out of the overheated online bubble. But at the end, television decided: think of the inordinate impact of the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign to distort John Kerry's military record (he was decorated for his service in Vietnam) that used four deceitful TV advertisements which instilled doubts in many people about his honesty and inserted a lot of static into his message. A tactic that became known as "swiftboating".
Much has changed in the last three years: broadband is commonplace; blogs carry alot of clout; online video has demonstrated its power; the "mainstream media" (television and print) have lost some of theirs. There is no randomness in the fact that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama announced that they were running through videos posted on their packed-with-features websites rather than at a formal press conference; in the fact that both have MySpace pages (Hillary: 8380 "friends"; Barack: 92426); in the fact that John Edwards invites bloggers to tag along on campaign tours; etc (most other candidates on both parties do the same).
So, many expect that 2008 will be a better, more democratic campaign, where "citizen journalists" will be able to unravel the partisan spin, where true conversations may start on real issues towards real solutions. Where manipulation and lies will be harder to carry out because somebody, somewhere, will be able to spot them, decrypt them, maybe record/videotape/document them, and if so certainly share them on YouTube or on a blog, condemning them and setting the record straight. And truth and substance will emerge -- and win.
My take is rather: along with the unprecedented avalanche of advertising from the candidates that the recent fund-raising records will pay for, 2008 will be the campaign of user-generated swiftboating. It will be a campaign dominated by information chaos. Where it will become impossible to tell candidates apart; to say clearly who stands for what; to figure out who's behind what message -- and particularly behind personal attacks; to detect where truth is and believe anyone. Historically we had spin doctors; now everybody has the tools to be a spin doctor, which means that the political ball will spin in every possible direction, faster than ever.
Consider just the remake of the famous ad that launched the Macintosh computer in 1984, featuring a woman throwing a hammer at a screen showing Big Brother. A couple of weeks ago an Obama supporter edited it (he did a near-professional job), inserting real (but out-of-context) footage from Hillary Clinton's campaign speeches, casting her as Big Sister, and posted it on YouTube: the homemade video has been seen over three million times so far.
Sure, YouTube has been the theatre of many good things: letting the world know about the "macaca" remark that cost his senatorial seat to George Allen, for example. But as the Big Sister video hints (even discounting a humorous intent) the potential for user-generated swiftboating is limitless -- through YouTube, though blogs, and any other tool available.
This is not to say that in the future, citizens empowered by online tools won't be able to change politics for the better. Not this time though: the campaign up to 2008 will be wild. The tools are still too new, the possibilities too exciting, and a politically mature usage of them will take time to settle in.
Which means that 2008 -- boosted by California moving their primary to February, which changes the whole dynamics -- will probably be a campaign hitched to personality and authenticity, not to policies. That's the only signal that may emerge from the growing noise: leadership. How will this person respond in a crisis? Can I trust him or her to take the right decisions? Empathy and warmth will trump any carefully drafted social-security reform plan. Because with the message blurred by its own multiplicity, the messenger will become the (only) message.
And I have the impression that that's the way Barack Obama and John (+ Elizabeth) Edwards are shaping their campaign.
(Cross-posted on the Huffington Post)