How the internet became election ground zero

Today’s internet has taken three decades to dominate the American political system, going from a wonkish yet campaign-trail-friendly bet on a connected future to a central force in the electoral process.

Catch up quick: Here’s how the evolution has unfolded so far.

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1992

  • The internet was still largely an academic network, but the Democrats’ Clinton/Gore ticket made “building an information superhighway” a key plank of their pro-tech campaign.

  • Their victory opened the gate to the federal government’s commercialization of the public-sector internet, blowing up the “Big Tech platforms” of their time — America Online, Compuserve, and Prodigy — and ushering in the Web era.

1996

  • The Web had begun to spark early-adopter enthusiasm but most voters weren’t online.

  • When the septuagenarian GOP candidate Bob Dole tried to promote his campaign’s website at the end of a TV debate, he botched the web address.

2000

  • Four years of dotcom-bubble internet growth made this the first election in which the online world played a significant role.

  • The Clinton impeachment saga left in its wake both big political email lists and charged-up partisan websites that jumped into the fray when the election outcome turned into a legal siege in Florida.

2004

  • Howard Dean’s campaign on the left and, on the right, the rise of the “warbloggers” (post-9/11 hawks who brought conservative energy to the blogosphere) established a teeming new underbrush of digital activism that stoked political controversies online — notably, the debunking of Dan Rather’s CBS story questioning Bush’s military service and the “swiftboating” of John Kerry.

  • 2004 laid the groundwork for today’s political environment of partisan trench warfare, online echo chambers, and competing-reality narratives.

2008

  • Obama’s victory rested in part on his campaign’s online fundraising and organizing savvy on an internet where Facebook and Twitter were both newcomers.

  • Democrats failed to follow up online post-election, ceding the digital advantage to a fired-up, Tea Party-inflected right.

2012

  • The first social-media election saw the stirrings of misinformation campaigns, including “birtherism” and controversies around the attack on the U.S. Benghazi mission. But online ad spends remained minuscule.

  • Leaked video from a Romney fundraiser — showing the GOP candidate talking about 47% of Americans who don’t pay taxes — foreshadowed a future of information wars.

2016

  • Welcome to the social-media Thunderdome! Trump’s upset win rested on many foundations, but cornerstones included a smart use of targeted online advertising and a flood of disinformation from both foreign and domestic sources.

  • Trump turned Twitter into a blaring megaphone for his political tactics and personal obsessions, effectively outmaneuvering the old-line political media and setting the election-news agenda.

2020

  • Facebook, YouTube, Twitter along with Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and other services: These platforms are where Americans now wrestle with their electoral choices, share news and argue over truth. They’re also where campaigns spend an increasing share of their ad dollars.

  • With the coronavirus pandemic limiting in-person contact, the internet has become the primary channel for politics — putting a hot spotlight on the platforms’ rule-makers and fueling charges of censorship and bias.

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