U.S. Political Campaign Discourse Explodes Online

The Web is magnifying the influence of TV's Jon Stewart and a host of other commentators, engaging the American public like never before

In the days after Sarah Palin was nominated as the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, the Web was rife with content focused on the Alaska governor. One of the most piquant—and widely viewed—video clips came from The Daily Show. In it, host Jon Stewart highlighted Palin doublespeak by conservative pundits. He showed, for instance, a clip of Bill O'Reilly calling the pregnancy of Palin's teen daughter a private issue just months after the Fox News commentator had lambasted actress Jamie Lynn Spears' parents for allowing their 16-year-old to get pregnant. "See, see what happens with the opinions on teen pregnancy is that they gestate over a period of a few months," Stewart quipped. The video took off online, racking up 4.2 million views, a record for The Daily Show's site.

The rapid dissemination of the Stewart clip underscores how the Internet is helping to broaden the influence of commentators, comedians, bloggers, and pundits in a year when the public can't get enough information about the Presidential election. On cable, The Daily Show is drawing its highest ratings ever, luring 1.9 million viewers each night of the week of Sept. 15, according to TV ratings service Nielsen Media Research. But the show's Web site is growing in lockstep; 850,000 people visited the site that week, putting it on track for its biggest month ever. Traffic has tripled in the past year.

Proactive News Consumers

Some credit for the exploding online popularity of The Daily Show goes to a decision by Viacom's (VIA) Comedy Central to make all Daily Show content available free on the Web—amid an ongoing battle with Google (GOOG) over illegally posted clips on YouTube. It also doesn't hurt that Stewart often offers what viewers consider an entertaining and enlightening take on the twists and turns of a dramatic election season. "This is an election without any road map," says Erik Flannigan, executive vice-president for digital media at MTV Networks Entertainment Group, which runs the Daily Show site. "Jon's reaction has been the one you want to see, and people want to react to the reaction."

The Daily Show is also tapping into a more fundamental shift in how people follow news. Thanks to the power of the Internet, people are no longer merely consuming news in a passive way (as in, "tell me a story"), but going out and looking for it proactively ("answer my question"), explains Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The notion that the Internet is helping people take a more active role in digging out the news is not novel. What's different this election cycle is the size of the audience and the extent of their involvement; they're not just actively seeking a wide variety of news outlets, but quickly aggregating, posting, and disseminating must-read items, and then entering into a public discourse with pundits, editors, and each other on the most pressing issues of the day. "The ease with which you can go to the site, see this stuff, and comment on it, that's essentially the engine that's driving this," Flannigan says.

Who'd a Thunk It: The People Become Election Players

According to a Pew Research Center survey released in mid-June, about 40% of Americans have gone online to get political news, up from 31% in 2004, and 16% in 2000. They're reading more news and blogs and watching more videos, too. About 35% of Americans have watched political videos, compared with 13% in 2004. But they're not simply swallowing pundits' take on events. They're actively doing their own fact-checking and searching out the direct sources of information. About 39% have gone online to read or watch unfiltered campaign material, such as debates, speeches, and position papers.

In the process, members of the public are becoming new big players in the campaign. In 2008, 30% of Internet users did at least one of nine activities that Pew labels as content sharing or creation, including posting their own commentary online, forwarding to friends and family videos or political commentary they find online, and signing up for online petitions. More than one-fourth, or 27%, go online once a week to do something related to the campaign. "This is the unseen force that didn't exist," says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum, a nonpartisan group that tracks the influence of politics and technology. "My 81-year-old dad e-mailing Barack Obama's speeches or Jon Stewart's videos to his 50 friends—he's part of this force that's turning citizens into pamphleteers, whether they know it or not."

Bloggers and traditional media of all stripes are tapping into this. It can be basic things, like The Daily Show asking people to contribute captions for offbeat photos, or the Talking Points Memo group of blogs asking readers to help analyze a flow of documents on such issues as the Justice Dept.'s controversial firing of U.S. attorneys.

A-List Political Blogs

Bloggers are more important than ever during this Presidential campaign, gaining credentials to cover events and conventions and being briefed alongside traditional media reporters. Indeed, according to Pew, almost one-quarter of Americans, or 23%, now read blogs about politics or current events.

Of course, not all political blogs are created equal. There's a relatively small number of A-list blogs that are substantially shaping the political debate, says Jane Hamsher, founder of Firedoglake, a popular liberal-leaning blog. Since 2006, the increasing prominence of sites like Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, and Daily Kos, have made it harder for up-and-comers to make names for themselves.

Bloggers who aggregate other blogs and information do particularly well amid this jumble of voices. Case in point: left-leaning The Huffington Post, whose founder Arianna Huffington was chosen by BusinessWeek's editors and readers as one of the most influential people on the Web. The Huffington Post is also ranked No. 1 on Technorati's Top 100 blog list, while the conservative Pajamas Media is ranked No. 55. Roger L. Simon, CEO and co-founder of Pajamas Media, says the site's traffic has doubled over the past year to about 42 million page views in August. "The actual election has given us a huge shot," Simon says.

Huffington is awed by the sustained level of interest in this election. According to Google Analytics, The Huffington Post's audience has grown fourfold this year, hitting 12.5 million visitors in August. "It's also been fascinating to watch the rapidity with which a news cycle can change by the hour these days, instead of by the day," says Huffington. "News really has become a 24/7 operation." With the help of the Web, Huffington, Simon, and Stewart are staying on top of it all.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.