The Imperfect Politics of the Internet

Despite what you may have read, the Internet hasn't yet become the be-all, end-all for political campaigns.

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In the digital age, the Internet has become an invaluable political tool. But in the same way teachers tell students that Google doesn't substitute for real research, political consultants say the Internet is no substitute for old school politicking. As of the 2012 elections, the Internet still has a long way to go before emerging as the dominant political forum. Here's a look at what the Internet is good and bad for in political campaigns.

What the Internet is Bad For

In the process of luring voters to vote one way or another, political groups and campaigns have shown a willingness to do whatever it takes, regardless of cost. Campaigns air thousands of TV ads they admit are poorly-crafted, blunt instruments aimed at small factions of viewers. To get around this problem, campaigns are using Internet "micro-targeting" to better customize who sees what. But on this frontier of political advertising, campaigns are often failing to connect.

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If you're a registered voter who spends any time online, it's likely the presidential campaigns and the biggest independent groups know about you and your habits. If you go to one of their websites, they tag your online identity and follow it everywhere.

A study by the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington found that the websites of these groups had 77 separate tracking tools that compiled data, followed you around the Internet, and compiled profiles cross-listed with credit card records, voting histories, and other personal or demographic data.

"That [data] is used to target you with ads," says Sarah Downey, an analyst at online privacy advocate Abine. "They're really trying to be efficient because they only have a certain amount of money and don't want to use it on people whose minds are already made up."

This year, potential voters heard ads customized by the genre of music they listened to on Pandora, what they searched for on Google, and the TV shows they watched. But despite all this data, online political ads are expected to make up about 1.5 percent of all ad spending in the 2012 elections, according to Borrell Associates.

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A reason for this could be that the Internet simply isn't that effective of a persuasion tool. A study at Berkeley found that Facebook was ineffective for persuading voters or increasing name recognition of candidates. The researchers purchased the maximum number of Facebook banner ads for a week — advertising a local political candidate — and found little to no change in his name recognition afterwards.

Even Facebook ads that are highly targeted, say by region or a user's "Likes," aren't very effective says Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage D.C., a digital media consultancy whose clients have included Paul Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner.

"One of the things that's not yet effective, but has been touted a lot, is targeting by specific individual tastes," Ruffini says. "It can be expensive and you're reaching maybe a third of the people you could."

So instead of buying Facebook ads, many campaigns reach out directly to Facebook users, says Downey.

"[Campaigns] aren't buying ads, they're targeting individual people who have a lot of friends," Downey says. "They try to get them to become mini campaign advocates and influencers."

The idea is to generate more organic advocacy, which is much more effective. Personal recommendations, in politics or elsewhere, are the "gold standard" in persuasion, Ruffini says. So instead of using social ads to persuade potential voters, as TV ads do, campaigns use them for a purpose much better suited to the Internet: mobilization.

What the Internet is Good For

Whatever shortcomings the Internet has in persuasion, it makes up for in people taking action for a specific candidate. That action can be a donation, a trip to the polls, or even just a Facebook post.

"Facebook ads are means to an end. They in-and-of themselves aren't gonna persuade, but that's not the goal — it's to sign people up who will hit share on a post," Ruffini says. "Anything in the Newsfeed or posted by a user is inherently more valuable than an advertisement."