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Can Republicans steal Obama's Web 2.0 mojo?

Liberal fear of a conservative internet

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When Digg began aggregating political articles during the 2008 US presidential election, many of the stories pushed to the top by the highest number of Diggs were pro-Obama and anti-McCain.

In an article here, one conservative ruminated balefully on the innate bias among Digg's readers. He said the tech community that still dominates the site leans decidedly to the left, and claimed conservatives were slow to adopt social news sites.

Then in February 2009 Facebook was caught preventing an advertisement sponsored by conservative group Americans for Prosperity from appearing on its site. This kind of tempest in a teacup has happened in the world of US TV in the past, and Facebook eventually relented and put the ad back up.

As 2010 opens and we prepare ourselves for another round of elections in the US in November it's worth reflecting on whether the internet - and social and web 2.0 properties - have an innate "liberal" bias, and whether that bias can serve Obama's party in the way it did during the 2008 campaign.

Speaking as someone who used Facebook and other social-networking tools to organize and promote events for Obama in 2008, what the issue comes down to is not whether social media is liberal or conservative. Rather, what matters are the differences in each side's approach to the internet as a political tool and how our perception of that use is clouded depending upon what side we're on.

The Democrats used the web more effectively in the 2008 election than their rivals, but conservatives are now using the web, too - yes, even Facebook and Twitter - and sometimes more successfully and with more savvy than their liberal foes.

In recent months, the Republican party used social media to shore up its solid and loyal conservative base as the Obama administration ran into political trouble over the Middle East and healthcare.

There was, for example, a web site to combat Obama on the latter called The Obama Experiment, which used videos on YouTube to criticize the healthcare plan, and to speak squarely to conservatives who fear they'll pay more taxes because of that plan.

So if Republicans are using the web to rally their base, Democrats - based on my experience in 2008 - are trying to target a wider swathe of users, the floating voters, that have access to social media.

What they fail to take into account, however, is that the floater is lazy, busy, or just plain distracted. Floaters are deriving lusty pleasure from throwing sheep at each other via the popular Facebook app, Farmville. They're too busy letting everyone on their Facebook friend list know they're a fan of the correct use of "there," "their" and "they're" to pay attention to something as frivolous as healthcare reform.

If you look at Facebook as an example, social media is flawed as a platform to promote liberal ideology and progressive political action. As an application, Facebook is scattered. It's unfocused. It tries to do too many things at once. It's - wait for it - just like the US Democratic Party, which is a very broad coalition.

So even if social-media sites have a liberal bias, it doesn't give liberals a political edge. On the contrary, if Facebook is any indication, an important issue can get lost in the noise of other, more entertaining, activities.

At least liberals can take some comfort in knowing that there are more of "us" than "them" online. Statistically speaking, people who use the internet most frequently are more educated, according to Tim McAtee, author of The State of Social Media Marketing and director of research at MarketingProfs. Since more-educated people tend to be liberal, there are likely more liberals using the Internet, he said.

However, McAtee pointed out something sobering - at least to us liberals that want conservatives to crawl back into their luddite caves and leave the internet to the latte drinkers. That is, that the conservatives who are online to visibly promote their causes are the smartest of them all.

"If you take a look at the education demographics for a conservative site like Redstate.com or Conservapedia.com, you'll notice that they really over-index compared to the US average, or even compared to sites like Wikipedia.org," McAtee said.

"In other words, there are fewer conservatives online than liberals, but the average online conservative is better educated than the average online liberal. These are very smart people."

These very smart people are the ones behind the controversial Obama-bashing Tea Party protests that conservatives organize via Facebook and Twitter, making those " liberal" social-media networks as important to their movement as those conservative sites Red State and Conservapedia.

McAtee also cautioned against getting fooled by what he calls "the echo chamber" of social media, and that I shouldn't think that more liberals are using Facebook than conservatives just because I'm one of them.

According to McAtee, because I'm liberal the majority of my Facebook friends likely are, too. That means I'll tend to see more memes and ads promoting issues liberals care about on my Facebook homepage than, say, conservative TV host Glenn Beck does on his.

I proved McAtee's echo-chamber point during the 2008 presidential election without even knowing it by defriending anyone on my friend list who posted pro-John McCain or pro-Sarah Palin material, or who made derogatory - and sometimes downright racist - comments about Obama.

In this way, I insulated myself against conservative opinions in the safety of my liberal Facebook womb.

Maybe if we look under the hood, there is a liberal bias to popular social-media sites. But so what? It hasn't stopped conservatives one bit from using the web to promote their political agenda. And with another presidential election looming on the not-so-distant horizon, it's likely that each side will continue to find new and diabolical ways to use what has now become a necessary political tool. ®

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