It's been almost a week since Senator John Kerry conceded victory in the US election, and I still feel sick to the pit of my stomach. And what made me sickest of all was the fact that President George W. Bush's victory was achieved, in large part, thanks to the Internet. My dear, beloved, traitorous Internet.
There's no doubt that the most important foreign election in any of our lifetimes was also the first to be significantly influenced by new media. Kerry and Bush both committed sizeable chunks of their war chests to building vast, all-singing, all-dancing campaign Web sites.
These official sites had two key roles: to keep existing supporters on-message and to win over floating voters using mean-spirited video clips about their opponents' Vietnam records. And very impressive they were too.
But that was only part of the candidates' official Web strategies. All across cyberspace, Bush and Kerry spent massive amounts on carefully targeted banner advertising.
Kerry hit upon the brilliant idea of flooding high-traffic sites with targeted ads straight after the big televised debates. His reasoning -- that the moment the debates finished, hundreds of thousands of undecided voters would flood on to the Web in search of background information to help them make up their minds. The candidate with the most ads would grab the most eyeballs and therefore the most votes, so the theory went.
But Vice President Dick Cheney went one step further -- during a televised debate he supported one of his arguments by encouraging voters to visit the bipartisan anti-spin site, factcheck.org. Unfortunately for the hapless vice-president, he gave the URL as factcheck.com, sending millions of potential voters to the official Weblog of George Soros, a fierce critic of Bush.
And the official sites and advertising banners were small potatoes compared with the unofficial online campaigning. Film-maker Michael Moore made his anti-Bush hate-umentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, available for download the day before the election to try to convince floating voters to come out against Bush, while the Democratic pressure group, Moveon.org, invited its users to create 60-second videos giving reasons why Bush shouldn't win a second term.
And yet win he did. Why? Because, while the Democrat supporters had right on their side, the Republican supporters were far, far better at fighting dirty. Conservative mega-sites such as Freerepublic.com galvanized their hundreds of thousands of visitors into an army of amateur attack dogs -- ready to yap and snap the moment a foolish journalist wrote anything bad about Bush. Woe betide any TV reporter who didn't check his facts properly before claiming that George W didn't finish his National Guard service. And pity any liberal British newspaper that launched an online campaign to convince the voters of a small county in Ohio of the merits of a Kerry administration. The mass yapping and snapping worked like a charm -- making even the most fearless journalists think twice before they questioned Bush's suitability for a second term.
But at least American political parties know what the Internet is, unlike, say, their British counterparts. Just look at the official sites of the big three parties. Labour's site (labour.org.uk) looks so amateurish that it should probably be hosted on Geocities, while the Liberal Democrats' online home (libdems.org.uk) is all garish yellow boxes and dull transcripts.