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Internet propels Obama but also creates risks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Political analysts marvel at Barack Obama’s mastery of the Internet, where he has found many of his 1.5 million donors and created the social networking site my.barackobama.com to mobilize masses of young voters.

But they warn that the new and still evolving medium also poses serious risks for the Democratic presidential candidate, who, by opening his campaign to so many surrogates, is vulnerable to losing control of his message.

The Internet also has provided a forum for whisper campaigns such as one promoting the false assertion he is Muslim. White supremacist groups, too, have intensified their online rhetoric coinciding with the political ascent of a man who if elected in November would be America’s first black president. Obama, an Illinois senator, will face Republican Sen. John McCain in the general election.

“A basic fundamental of any campaign is to control the message. And when you open yourself up this much via the Internet, you cannot control your message because the Internet can take a life of its own,” said Ravi Singh, CEO of ElectionMall Technologies, a technology consultant to political campaigns.

Some of Obama’s own liberal supporters have used the my.barackobama.com Web site to criticize him as moving to the political center, particularly for his changed position on legislation overhauling U.S. spy laws.

While Obama seems to have managed the dangers so far, the November 4 election is still almost four months away.

“They need to be spending almost as much time on the damage control as they are on so brilliantly moving their message out,” said Lisa Linden, the CEO of New York public relations firm Linden Alschuler & Kaplan.

The Obama campaign has established a separate Web site called fightthesmears.com dedicated to rebutting what it calls a series of lies being spread about the candidate.

The drama playing out online underscores how rapidly the Internet has become infused with politics. Barely a factor in 2000, it was discovered as a valuable tool in 2004.

A woman makes a call at an Obama campaign office during presidential primary in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2008. REUTERS/Frankie Steele

‘MARKETING MARVEL’

“In the next campaign cycle, the Internet will take over what television has been doing in American politics since 1960,” said Michael Cheney, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government & Public Affairs.

Cheney has praise for how Obama has blended new media with traditional community organizing to make voters feel they are a part of the campaign.

“We know from a lot of studies, the more that people are involved in the political process the more likely they are to stick with it ... and on Election Day the more likely they are to turn out,” he said.

Obama also wins high marks from Linden, who calls the Illinois senator a “200 million man marketing marvel” whose tactics will be borrowed by retailers, marketers and politicians in the future.

“The problem is managing it,” said ElectionMall’s Singh. “Once you build a virtual headquarters with a massive virtual grass roots, you have a tough time managing it.”

Moreover, Obama’s opponents are armed with the same weapon.

U.S. white supremacists have used Obama’s candidacy to alert the radical fringe via the Internet about what they see as the dangers posed by the Democratic presidential candidate.

“Substantial sections of the white supremacist movement think this will be the slap in the face that will wake up millions of white Americans to what they see as the horror of a black presidency,” said Mark Potok, an investigator with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that monitors pro-white groups.

Potok has documented the rhetoric on white supremacist blogs that are celebrating Obama’s candidacy on the theory that “worse is better.”

“They think it will be good for the race war, for Aryan revolution,” Potok said, adding that “it’s obviously a fantasy on their part.”

(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)

Editing by David Wiessler

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