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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cyberjournalism and Big Brother on Internet




In 1960, when Steve Case was learning to walk, television found its political stride in the debate between U.S. presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. If you listened to that debate on radio, Nixon won. If you watched on television, Kennedy won. The TV victory proved decisive. Forty years later, that same Steve Case is asking the follow-up question: Which candidate would have won that debate if there had been an Internet? Since Case happens to run an online community 23 million strong, he's in a good position to find out what happens when you add cyberspace to politics.


At a time when the big TV networks are withdrawing from campaign coverage, cybermedia like Case's America Online are rushing to fill the vacuum. NBC, ABC and CBS plan to give the coming Republican and Democratic conventions a few hours each, but AOL, along with cable TV operations such as CNN and C-SPAN, will cover the whole thing. AOL producers will survey the proceedings from the grandeur of a skybox and large areas of prime convention real estate will be staked out by other cyberjournalists.


Online coverage of the conventions will offer things other media cannot. Cyberspace is unlimited, so there is room for add-ons to the usual news, such as diaries from ordinary convention delegates. It is interactive, so people can interview the politicians and pundits who once delivered one-way lectures. And it is social. If you watch the conventions on AOL's Webcast, you can swap comments on the spectacle with other AOL viewers.


How might this change politics? Although most visitors to campaign web sites are political junkies, the new medium may draw some people who would otherwise have ignored the campaign; this might boost turnout. The Internet allows you to choose the type of political coverage you want f chat, analysis, headlines, trivia. CNN's web site invites you to predict the Democrats' veep choice; a site called Pseudopolitics.com is experimenting with 360-degree cameras that simulate the feeling of wandering the convention floor.


Cyberjournalism may also shift attention away from personalities, undoing television's influence. In the era of the search engine, a candidate who charms and lies is less likely to last: It's too easy to check rhetoric against record. In the era of the online voter guide, you are more likely to be led to the candidate you agree with rather than the one you find attractive. AOL's Presidentmatch, based on software that helps customers choose the perfect car for them: You plug in your views and the computer tells you which candidate fits them. The software doesn't care who's telegenic or electable.


Is this good? The worry about e-politics is that it is only for the better off. Fewer than 50 percent of Americans have an Internet connection at home; people in high-income urban areas are 20 times more likely to have access than people in poor rural ones; low-income whites are three times more likely to log on than low-income blacks. Until that changes, the answer to Case's question is that nobody will win elections online, or that nobody should.


But the rise of cyberjournalism raises other worries. Television began by shedding light on the human dimension of politics f and ended up driving all candidates to conceal their humanity beneath makeup and sound bites. The Internet may begin by sharpening the focus on candidates' policy pronouncements f and so drive candidates to rededicate themselves to the gods of fuzz and caution. The humorless search-and-summarize programs may not distinguish irony from serious statements, so irony will be verboten.


Then there is the prospect of a new device that AOL hopes to test out at the conventions. This invites AOL viewers to respond as they listen to a speech; it is a focus group with thousands of participants. At first, this sounds like harmless fun. But it won't be long before these new data are used to craft speeches that say precisely what people want to hear. Even more than is the case now, the dialogue between politician and voter may become pointlessly circular. Television turned politics into show biz. The Internet may tempt politicians to imitate the lifeless intelligence of computers.


Sebastian Mallaby is a member of the editorial page staff of The Washington Post, where this comment originally appeared.