Dan Rather

Blog Campaigning: 4.2 The potential impact of blogs

4.2 The potential impact of blogs Most scholars see the introduction of blogs to the political sphere as a major asset for political campaigns. Nigel Jackson (2006), for instance, argues that there are several aspects about blogs that might impact elections. First of all, bloggers present “a potential alternative to traditional media as gatekeepers of information and news” (Jackson 2006, p. 295). Bloggers have on several occasions proved that they can break major news stories (Jackson 2006, p. 295). For instance, it was bloggers that created the storm of protest that led to the resignation of Senate majority leader Trent Lott for comments he made on Senator Storm Thurmond’s 100th birthday party in December 2002, supporting Thurmond’s segregationist stance in the presidential election in 1948 (Jackson 2006, p. 295). The event was broadcast and reported in the mainstream press, but while bloggers denounced the remarks vigorously, it took the mainstream media almost a week to devote significant coverage to Lott’s comments (Drezner & Farrell 2004, p. 3). Bloggers were also credited for creating the media storm that lead to CBS reporter Dan Rather’s resignation in 2004 (Jackson 2006, p. 295) after he presented false documents critical of President George W Bush's service in the United States National Guard during a 60 Minutes report in the lead up to the election (Eberhart 2005). Blogs questioned the authenticity of the documents within hours and the content soon spread to the mass media (Eberhart 2005, Pein 2005). Jackson (2006, p. 295) claims, therefore, that: “the impact of weblogs appears to be helping to set the political or news agenda”. Similar, Sroka (2007, p. 9) reports that the vast majority of the academic literature “has pinned the blogosphere’s potential for influence on its ability to sway, guide, and, generally, shape the way the media sees and frames political events”. Furthermore, Jackson (2006, p. 296), supported by Drezner and Farrell (2004), argues that it appears blogs have the capability of ‘influencing the influencers’. “The impact of political blogs is not so much who is producing them, rather it is whether they attract influential visitors”, claims Jackson (2006, p. 296). Studies have found that a high percentage of visitors to political blogs are opinion makers: political reporters, politicians and policy makers (Bloom in Jackson 2006, p. 296, Drezner & Farrell 2004, p. 4), and because certain opinion-makers take blogs seriously, the medium can have a wide impact on the political agenda (Drezner & Farrell 2004, p. 22). However, blogs also have a potential to influence voters that goes beyond their ability to occasionally set the news agenda (Jackson 2006, p. 296). What also strikes Jackson (2006, p. 296) is that bloggers are ‘techno-activists’ (coined by Kahn & Keller in Jackson 2006, p. 296), “so that their community is often ‘political’ in nature”. This, he claims, opens up the possibility of mobilizing this community. But what is even more important, is that blogs are unique in the way that they enable political actors to communicate at two different levels at the same time:

“First, they can narrowcast to a very small number of key opinion formers to influence the political agenda. Second, they can broadcast to as many people as possible to try and influence their individual opinion. Potentially, political parties and candidates can reach a range of voters who visit the blogosphere” (Jackson 2006, p. 296).

Abold and Heltsche (2006, p. 1) argue that blogs can make a successful contribution to political campaigns because they combine two main elements of political communication, namely openness and interactivity. Blogs consequently meet the growing demand for authentic and personal communication expected by the post-modern voter as they not only provide valuable information, but also enforce political discussions with citizens (Abold & Heltsche 2006, p. 1). A more technical feature that makes blogs a potentially effective campaigning tool is, according to Abold and Heltsche (2006, p. 2), the high rank of blog articles in Internet search engines. Blog articles rank high in search engines because of their linking system. Most of the search engines’ algorithms work in the way that they rank pages higher if the sites that link to that page use a consistent anchor text (Wikipedia 2007b) – “the text a user clicks when clicking a link on a web page” (Wikipedia 2007c). However, several recent sources claim that search engines, in particular Google, are working hard to change their algorithm after bloggers in the election battles of 2004 and 2006 organised so called ‘Google Bombing campaigns’ (see Easter 2007, Cutts 2007, Wikipedia 2007b) - attempts to intentionally influence the ranking of pages and articles in order to drive as many voters as possible toward the most damning, non-partisan article written on a candidate (Bowers 2006a).

Nonetheless, it is one thing to discuss the potential influence blogs may have on political campaigns, but looking at how political parties and candidates actually use the medium might give a different perspective of the mediums’ capabilities as an electioneering tool.