international analysis and commentary

The Washington – Silicon Valley alliance


On April 20th President Barack Obama sat down with Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg for a town hall-style forum at the company’s Palo Alto headquarters. The event was streamed live on Facebook’s hugely popular social networking website. On April 18th Sarah Palin’s political action committee unveiled a revamped website that sent pundits in a frenzy of speculations about her presidential ambitions. On April 12th Mitt Romney discarded his expensive suits and trademark stiffness and, sporting a casual jacket and open-collared shirt, announced his intention to run in the 2012 GOP primary via a laid-back YouTube video. And on March 22nd Tim Pawlenty took to his Facebook page to tell his supporters, and the nation, that he too was considering a run for the White House.

There is no doubt that the relationship between politics and new media has grown more entangled over the last few years. Back-to-back events from recent weeks only reinforce the impression, suggesting that the marriage between campaigns and the Internet may emerge as the defining feature of the 2012 election season, presenting opportunities both for politicos wanting to grow their online presence, and for Silicon Valley CEOs wanting to cultivate their political influence.

For President Obama, the goal of the hour-long question-and-answer session moderated by Zuckerberg was to rekindle the romance with young people – those voters aged 18-to-29 who propelled his ascent to the White House in 2008 but largely sat out the 2010-midterm elections.

According to The Washington Post, 23.4 million young people voted in 2008. They went for Barack Obama by a 34-point margin. In 2010, only a meager 10.8 million turned out. “It is likely he [the President] saw this as a great opportunity to link up with Facebook’s many users and to reignite interest among younger voters,” says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

There certainly is no better place than Facebook for such undertaking. The website Inside Facebook, which tracks Facebook-related data, calculates that, as of December 2010, 52% of Facebook users were between the ages of 18 and 34. An additional 11% comprised people between 13 and 17 years of age, some of who will become eligible to vote by November 2012. According to Obama’s chief pollster Joel Benenson, there may be then as many as eight million new voters aged 18 to 22, an untouched reservoir of support to tap into.

Obama has a long history of reaching out to supporters via the web, an art in which he was almost unrivaled in 2008. Yet, he is no longer the only tech-savvy politician. By the 2010-midterm elections, Republicans had closed the gap. They now appear as determined as ever to exploit all available online political tools.

“In 2010, conservative voters and Tea Party supporters were much more engaged than they were in 2008,” says Aaron Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “At the same time, the cohort of people that uses social media has gotten older over the last couple of years.” The combination of these two factors has led to what Smith calls “a basic parity in terms of social media use by Republicans and Democrats.”

On the Republican side, the campaign of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty appears to be approaching social media in the most creative way. Pawlenty’s strategists took the inspiration from two of Facebook’s most popular applications, Farmville and Foursquare, to create a game-like tool for his supporters, who receive points and badges depending on their involvement in the campaign.

Irrespective of party affiliation, for candidates wanting to make the most out of web-based political tools the key word is integration. A successful campaign will not merely use the different platforms available on the Internet, but will have a strategy to make Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, E-mail and Google work together. New media make it easier for campaigns to organize internally, mobilize grassroots activists, raise funds, and motivate supporters to go to the polls on Election Day.

“The range of online tools available is growing and evolving over time,” says Smith. “In 2006/2008, we started seeing people engaging with political videos; in 2008/2010, we started noticing the emergence of social networking websites; in 2010 we started seeing glances of people using mobile tools, which we expect to be a major component in 2012.”

Smart phones and tablets allow campaigns to stay in touch with their supporters in a time sensitive way, without having to wait for people to be at their computers. Political communication now travels almost instantaneously.

The ever-tightening union of politics and the Internet does not play to the exclusive advantage of campaigns and candidates but, rather, it cuts both ways.

“This was a great advertisement for Zuckerberg: ‘the President loves Facebook’,” says Ray La Raja, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, of last week’s town hall-style meeting. “There has been talk of regulating Facebook over privacy issues, so why not be friendly with the President?”

A bill recently introduced in the Senate by Democrat John Kerry and Republican John McCain would curb the activities of the Internet-tracking industry in order to protect the privacy of consumers. “Computer companies and web companies are getting nervous,” says La Raja. “That’s how they are making their advertisement revenue, by collecting information about users and selling it.”

At age 26, Mark Zuckerberg is pushing the envelope in terms of the relationship between the political establishment and the technology industry. He has shown a keener interest in politics and public policy (in September of last year Zuckerberg made a highly publicized $100 million donation to the public schools of Newark, New Jersey) than most of his predecessors. Politicians, especially Democrats, appear to welcome the shift.

The Obama-Zuckerberg town hall meeting in Palo Alto was, in fact, only the most recent display of affection between Washington and Silicon Valley. The President had previously traveled to Northern California to attend a dinner hosted on February 17th by venture capitalist John Doerr. The evening featured an exclusive guest list of technology industry CEOs. Zuckerberg was in attendance, as well as Apple’s Steve Jobs, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Yahoo’s Carol Bartz, Twitter’s Dick Costolo and Netflix’s Reed Hastings.

For President Obama in particular, the technology industry represents the best hope for that kind of innovative job creation he has promised. “It is a model, really, for that kind of economic activity that we want to see in other cutting edge industries in the United States,” said White House Press Secretary James Carney on the day of the dinner.

But there is no doubt that the deep-pocketed guests that gathered at Doerr’s house in mid-February also represent a treasured prize for any candidate running for office. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, who analyzed data provided by the nonpartisan research group, ten of the dinner guests (not Zuckerberg, who has never personally made political contributions) donated, over the last decade, more than $900,000 to campaigns, mostly to Democrats.

“Most of these guys in Silicon Valley are very socially liberal and can’t stand the conservatives,” says Ray La Raja. “So long as the Democrats don’t hurt their business, I think their instincts are more with people like Obama.” But they are savvy business people, and are unlikely to put all their eggs in one basket. “They know that they’ll have to butter the bread on both sides,” says La Raja.

In any case, many wonder if and how increasing political giving by the technology industry may affect the balance of power of campaign contributions. Traditionally, industries in the manufacturing and energy sectors donate more to the GOP, while the financial services industry of Wall Street gives more to democratic candidates. Some liberal observers are hailing the political emergence of the technology industry as the beginning of a new era of progressive giving.

For La Raja, money alone isn’t enough to compete with older, more entrenched business interests. “Real influence means having a steady presence in Washington, talking to politicians day in and day out about your issues.” Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have started to do more of that, having now fallen under government scrutiny for their business practices. According to The Washington Post, Facebook’s Washington office went from only one person three years ago to 10 today, plus a number of outside lawyers and consultants. Yet, these are figures that pale in comparison to the operations financed by, say, the Koch Industries of Charles and David Koch. The Center for Responsive Politics calculates that the Koch brothers spent, between 1989 and 2010, more than $50 million dollars in direct lobbying, on top of the millions of individual and PAC contributions to conservative politicians and causes and the millions more donated to think tanks and independent political organizations.

The nascent political influence of the technology industry has room to grow. But it may not be that long before Silicon Valley catches up, considering the pace at which it is expanding.