Manuel Castells: Politics and Internet in Obama era

Live notes at the research seminar Politics and Internet in Obama era by Manuel Castells. Internet Interdisciplinary Institute, Castelldefels (Barcelona), Spain, May 26th, 2009.

This lecture is part of Manuel Castells’ new book Communication Power.

Politics and Internet in Obama era
Manuel Castells

Internet Usage

Was what truly surprising and unpredictable was not that Democrats won the election — most likely to happen after the crisis, the wars and so — but that Obama won the primary elections. And the Internet was decisive. If Howard Dean leveraged the power of the Internet in the benefit of his campaign, in Obama’s, it was not only leveraged by determinant.

But it was not only the Internet, but also additional factors in the design of Obama’s campaing.

A first reason the Internet played such a role, was Internet usage, that has hugely increased compared to the previous elections four years before: 46% of adults used Internet or cellular phones to get political information, twice as much in Howard Dean’s times. And, indeed, there also were more Democrat voters using the Internet than Republican voters. And social networking sites (SNS) are just pervasive — even more than “standard” website usage — in general and, specifically, among youngsters. 40% of SNS users used SNSs to engage in political campaigning: social networking on the web is social networking with political connotations.

A huge discovery was that 58% of youngsters used the Internet for political mobilization, while only 20% of people over 65 did: the Internet help mobilize young voters, which normally have a lower voting ration than elder people.

Fundraising and web interaction

The campaign was centralized in plus a myriad of sympathising websites. But fundraising was centralized: any event, any action, led towards raising funds that inevitably led towards the Internet and the central website. Obama refused to be mainly funded by federal lobbies, which enabled him to propose political measures that went against specific lobbies’ interests. And this financial independence was made possible by the total (micro)donations raised and collected through the Internet. On average, Obama got US$250 per donor, 62% of which were through the Internet.

But, besides money, a huge database was created with people contacting Obama. Profiles were created and, thus, mobilization could be made almost on a personal basis. And this database was way better than the one the Democratic Party had.

Contacting the profiled people required a constant accountability of what Obama was doing with the money. It was all based on interaction, not just sending information out.

The turnout of Iowa’s campaing was 90%, but the overall campaing’s turnout was 135%: the young people were mobilized in a proportion that had never been seen in previous elections in the US.

The convergence of very important people around Obama’s campaing made it possible to bring it to a higher level. Experts from the Web world and, specifically, the SNS world, helped to design a campaign perfectly fitted for a Web 2.0 environment, being the flagship the “Yes We Can” viral video.

Indeed, web campaigning was also used in offline campaigning: the level of detail in the supporters’ profile allowed to identify who was supporting Obama in the territory, who should be addressed to, who was willing to vote, to engage… or who was “in need” of a final push to join Obama. These people knew each other, met on the Internet, and self-organized.

This self-organization meant that the message was delivered not by the “candidate” or the “apparatus” but by “normal” people, by neighbours, that explained why were they voting Obama, on a personal basis.


Despite the fact that “most” people is connected to the Internet, it is also true that intensive Internet users (read online, interact online, are heavy SNSs users, etc.) are below 40. This meant mobilizing the youngsters.

Indeed, Obama used the campaign not only for campaigning, but to send out a social message. And this was a major difference in relationship with Hillary Clinton.

On the one hand, Obama showed a different attitude towards the Iraq war, being against it from the beginning.

On the other hand, Obama detached himself from the mainstream powers of Washington, detaching himself also from John Kerry’s campaign who would never made it clear, for instance, whether he was for or against the Iraq war. Obama addressed people that were outside the political system, or disenfranchised from the whole system.

Organizing strategy

Triggering the social movement, socializing the campaign, bringing it to the grassroots level was crucial. The values of campaigning were transformed.

Saul Alinsky, based in Chicago, created the modern way of organizing communities. Barack Obama entered political mobilization when joining in churches in Chicago that worked in the Alinsky-like way of mobilizing communities. And Obama organized his campaign this way too. He applied Alinsky techniques to mobilize voters… and increase the voting rate. And he adapted it for the Internet age.

The platform is the message

Obama himself was a message. If Hillary Clinton decided that “she was a woman”. In Obama, he was the message and words mattered. And words were “hope” and “change”. Not gender, not race.

“Hope” became a framework, a framework within another framework characterized by crisis or war. And in this framework, he would bring “change”.

Obama mastered communication. A first pint was to dismantle Hillary Clinton’s attacks ( on his person. But this was a minor issue.

But most attacks, Obama fought them by being himself. And he also responded by bringing the level of debate to higher grounds, to more “philosophical” levels, avoiding personal reasons or personal confrontation.

Simonetta Taboni develops the concept of ambivalence, on how people innovate without being trapped in their approaches: I want to change the world, but I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I will try, and I will experiment. And, in this sense, Obama is ambivalent. Why is it so important to be ambivalent? Because goals are clear, but they leave enough blank spaces that citizens, experts, politicians, can fill in and participate. The means are collectively constructed… but led by the leader. People are engaged, people are involved through constant interactivity to go through constraints.


Ismael Peña-López: how narrow is the line that separates the theory of ambivalence from the theory of ignorance? What makes the difference between being ambivalent and simply incompetent (i.e. really does not know what to do)? Manuel Castells: the fundamental difference is that most political parties (e.g. Spain’s) have clear goals and clear means: to stay in power and do it at all costs. There’s no room in the political apparatus of the party for engagement or debate, less for collective construction. The major difference from ambivalent approaches is that parties write the full script. In ambivalence, something originating from outside the party is embedded in the discourse and even can transform the system. In an ambivalent approach, the Internet fuels the debate; in a non-ambivalent environment, the Internet is yet another bureaucratic tool. And the shift from non-ambivalent to ambivalent is almost impossible, and only likely to happen in a situation of total political crisis, where a deep change is needed (e.g. the case of Italy and Berlusconi that, ironically, mobilizes the voter against the established political parties).

Rachel K. Gibson: to what extent can Obama act like he did during the campaign now that he is the President? Will involvement still be possible? Manuel Castells: A simple observation is that the campaign still goes on, especially on the Internet. It is likely that engagement and mobilization will fade out, as it normally happens. The question is how much degree of change, how much demands will be put into practice before the system metabolises the inertia triggered during the election campaign. The secret will be how to keep this feeling of “revolution” or “change” alive for as long as possible.

Mike Jensen: Did Obama really transformed the system, or just a new campaign? Why cannot Obama’s model be extrapolated to Europe? Aren’t we seeing “politics 2.0” in Europe? Manuel Castells: he did change the system, as he brought inside many new voters and from different strata. And these new people do feel that they can change the system, which, at its turn, inevitably changes the political landscape. There is a true opening up of the system while, at the same time, avoiding to enter in a “civil war” against the establishment, which he needs to “professionally operate” the country. About transporting Obama’s model to Europe: it’s true that there is an Obamization of politics, and that there are shy approaches towards Web 2.0, but they are mainly technological, not conceptual. Everything remains under the control of the party machines, including the leaders — especially because there are no presidentialist elections. Power must be taken from political parties. And this will only happen under a sever catastrophic crisis of politics and political parties. Will this happen in the next UK elections? Will the Conservative Party be able to do it? Not only to beat the Labour Party, but to transform the whole political system.

Eduard Aibar: what happened to television? Manuel Castells: television still is the most important way to get (political) news (though this is not true for young people). And Obama paid a lot of attention to television, especially in the last days of the campaign, when he got a lot of money left and little time to spend it. On the other hand, he got a lot of air coverage, in part because it reported profits for TVs to cover his campaign. But TV was information and would have never been able to raise a grassroots movement.

Jasmina Maric: Internet propelled Obama… or Obama propelled the Internet? Manuel Castells: The huge difference in Internet adoption from the previous election and Obama’s was crucial. He boosted it, but the terrain was prepared to.

More info