Don’t Shove Your Message Down My Throat (Or, Contemplating the Long Sweep of Internet Politics)

The past month’s parade of conferences was bad for the publishing schedule but great for thinking — a time to step back for a minute and meditate about the changes we’re going through and where we are in the long sweep of digital politics. Changing, my friends, this world is.

Think about Russia’s recent moves to dissect Ukraine, and particularly the flimsy justifications Vladimir Putin provided. As Samantha Power (U.S. ambassador to the U.N.) said, Putin may not WANT to believe the internet exists, but it does, and it’s filled with images and stories countering his attempt to obscure territorial ambitions behind a screen of bullshit.

You can’t just mass your tanks on the border and figure no one will notice, when satellites streak overhead and the ‘net lies waiting for their photos. Will it matter? In the short run, maybe not — a photo can’t stop an armored brigade. But in the long run, it’s clear that we’re in a new battle of ideas, with minds around the globe as our targets. And in this kind of war, an open country — one that embraces the power of information freely flowing online — has the advantage…if we’re smart enough to take it.

Or look at my own field, digital politics. CampaignTech East was one moment in a long process of change, with an old model of politics slowly dying as a new one asserts its power. Who’s on the decline? Traditional pollsters, traditional TV buyers, traditional direct mailers — the people who tended to treat voters as a mass to be manipulated at will. The new model, which underlay many of the conference discussions? That voters are individual people, who must be reached and persuaded one at a time. Crazy talk!

From the outside, the change may be hard to see, since campaigns still buy ads on TV and send direct mail in bulk. But more and more, even these mass channels being taken over by communicators with a more subtle view of the electorate — people who realize that you can’t just shove political messaging down people’s throats and make them like it. You have to understand THEM, what they care about and how they communicate, and then tailor your messages so that they have some chance of cutting through the clutter to reach someone’s heart or mind. Data-driven politics really IS about listening.

The cool thing? We’re just at the beginning of the internet: as my friend Phil Noble is fond of saying, we’re in the first minute of the first hour of the first day of the digital age. And so far, as Nicco Mele described in his book “The End of Big,” the trend is toward taking power away from elites and putting it in the hands of people, even if there are plenty of hiccups along the way.

Putin’s way may work for now, but tanks are only one kind of strength: “soft power” — the ability to change minds around the world slowly, through persuasion and example — is amplified in a digital world, where information is just a Google search away. In the long sweep of internet politics, I’ll bet that the dictators are done…and I’m happy to do my tiny part to help them find a retirement home.


Written by
Colin Delany
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