New-media conflicts

I’ve written frequently in this space about the growth of digital campaigning, especially in the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter. This week we are seeing some conflicting results on the effectiveness of those techniques.

In Tuesday’s Virginia Democratic primary, the candidate who seemed to most embrace these tools was Terry McAuliffe. This icon of the Clinton years worked hard to re-brand himself as the candidate of young, tech-savvy voters. He outspent his opponents heavily — some estimates are more than the other two Democratic contenders and Bob McDonnell, the sole Republican in race, combined. He had more television, more direct mail and put more effort into his digital campaign than either of his opponents. Brian Moran, who was seen as the biggest threat to McAuliffe, also poured a lot of resources into digital media — especially his fundraising and GOTV efforts in the closing weeks of the campaign.

As we all know, these candidates finished a distant second and third to Creigh Deeds, who was virtually invisible on television until he won the endorsement of The Washington Post. Deeds did have the best television spots of the field — simple, inexpensive to produce and delivering a sharply focused message. There may well have been a digital effort for Deeds, but this Virginia voter didn’t see any evidence of it, while McAuliffe and Moran messages were in my inbox a dozen times a day. So in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it was old-fashioned shoe-leather politics and deep roots in the rural counties that carried the day for Deeds.

Reports out of Iran suggest an entirely different dynamic at play. Nearly half of Iran’s 46 million eligible voters are under 30 years of age. They seem to be engaged and committed to change, making them a powerful force in the presidential election there. In a country where the election has always been decided in mosques, Facebook may well be the most important venue in this election.

I won’t hazard to predict the outcome of an election in Iran where the incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has so many powerful tools he can wield. No incumbent in the modern era has ever lost an election there. One thing is clear, however: The electorate is restless and dissatisfied with a weak economy, growing unemployment and tight restrictions on personal freedoms.

The leading challenger to Ahmadinejad, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is effectively frozen out of the state-run media. So he’s turned to the Internet. His Facebook page has attracted over 30,000 “friends” to support his cause. He’s launched his own YouTube channel and is even using Twitter to send messages to his “followers.”

Mousavi has tapped into a powerful tool that is widely used by younger voters. Something close to 40 percent of Iranians have access to the Internet. This otherwise closed society has over 700,000 blogs, with as many as 200,000 of them being active sites tended on nearly a daily basis. These blogs have created a public space that is not controlled by the government and serves as a fertile recruiting ground and communication tool for younger activists looking for change.

In late May the Iranian government blocked access to Facebook. A few days later Ahmadinejad was asked about the ban at a news conference and professed not to know about it. He promised to investigate. The next day Facebook was live again. It appears that the Internet generally, and Facebook in particular, are such an important part of Mousavi’s message that any government interference will backfire and further inflame activists. “[I]f they shut it down, they’ll prove his point that this administration can’t deal with free expression,” observed Mehdi Semati, editor of the book Media, Culture and Society in Iran.

So what do we take away from these two elections half a world apart? First, Mousavi and the reformers have not yet won, so all we can say is that the medium has become the message in Iran. Access to free discussion and the growth in the use of the Internet is the genie that escaped from the bottle. It is unlikely, even if Ahmadinejad prevails, that  Iran’s powerful centralized Islamic government will ever get the genie back in. Secondly, we can see from Virginia that a website does not a campaign make. The Internet is a powerful tool, but it is only as strong as the message it carries and the sophistication with which it is delivered — content and context rule. More on that subject in a future column.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.