WASHINGTON – Rep. Howard Coble,R-N.C.,sits in his Capitol Hill office with no computer on his desk. There are no computers in his home,either.
Nor does he use any other device to connect to the Internet.
“It's a generational thing,” he said. “I am a yard-sign,bumper-sticker kind of guy.”
But Coble is well aware of the Internet's influence on politics and his cause. It has given him more exposure,broadened the horizons of campaigning and increased his voter outreach.
He uses a website run by his staff for online fundraising. He said his constituents have more access to him,and they have more information about his policies.
“His website is a tool to access information for our constituents,” said Edward McDonald,Coble's chief of staff.
The expansion of new media into political circles is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was initiated by online small-ticket contributions in Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign,said Mileah Kromer,assistant professor of political science at Elon University.
Its impact trickled down into the strategies of local and state level politicians after President Barack Obama's campaign,which became the prototype for social media in politics,Kromer said. New college graduates who are highly skilled in the use of social media created the “perfect storm” for the Web explosion,she said.
This has brought new dangers.
Just ask Rep. Bob Etheridge,D-N.C.,who was shown on YouTube confronting two men who claimed to be students after he was caught off guard by their cameras.
Private citizens and new civic journalists are more motivated to seek out politicians because of websites like YouTube that give them a platform. And the Internet has eased the task for the camera or Flip-video junkie by making the daily schedules of elected officials more readily available.
“They always have to be careful because the cell phone camera means news in today's day and age,” Kromer said.
Coble,too,was recently caught in a situation involving a camera but without any controversy or YouTube video. A man with a camera came up to Coble as he was leaving a reception on Capitol Hill and asked him something about the war. Coble replied that it was not the appropriate time to discuss this issue.
“That's a part of the job. We assume the risk. You assume that someone is going to shove a mike in your face,” Coble said. “Citizens have a right to accessibility.”
The Internet has not only allowed politicians to deliver accessibility but also to involve more citizens in the political process with greater depth.
“These media tools – YouTube,Wikipedia,etc. – are very important for transparency and keeping people engaged,” said Sen. Kay Hagan,D-N.C. “They help to engage the young people in the democratic process.”
But incidents like the Etheridge video and the one involving former Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen do not help the transparency in government,Kromer said. Allen used the term “macaca,” a racial slur from colonial Africa,to describe a cameraman of East Indian origin,a volunteer for Allen's political opponent.
Allen's was one of the first cases of a politician's misstep going viral on the Internet.
Elected officials may become more closed off if such events continue and could provide less information that could be turned against them or taken out of context,Kromer said.
Coble had a similar problem once when his Wikipedia page was re-edited with inaccurate information. Anyone using Wikipedia is free to add or edit content. No harm came from it because it was quickly detected.
The campaign staff of Sen. Richard Burr,R-N.C.,actively monitors every time his name is mentioned because incorrect information can damage reputation so quickly,said Samantha Smith,Burr's campaign spokeswoman.
But it would be strange and off-putting if a politician did not have a new media platform,Kromer said. Even Coble has a Facebook page,maintained by his staff.
Burr,on the other hand,utilizes all available forms of new media. He spends a lot of his time on the road and keeps his followers up to the minute through Twitter feeds,blog posts,picture feeds and videos. His activity in Washington can instantaneously be relayed back to his North Carolina constituents.
“Everything is more accessible and transparent. He is visible if you're a participant in new media and social networking,” Smith said.
But all these new avenues for information come with their side effects. Users seeking to respond to their politicians may have their comments lost in the shuffle,Smith said. The amount of information can confuse users,and the truth can often be glossed over through misinformation.
But e-campaigns are more prevalent,and politicians are taking a more vested interest.
“It is cheaper,effective and for right now it's working for us,” Smith said.
Other forms of political communication are still productive,including television,newspapers,political rallies and door-to-door campaigning in part because of the digital divide,which leaves out those who are not online. And the Internet reaches out to younger people,who are less likely to vote.
“The power of social media is to reinforce campaigns,” Kromer said. “In the future,it is something that will be important. As younger people grow older,its predominance will increase.”