Candidates Cruise the Info-Highway

Major parties move cautiously, but alternative candidates may benefit from national exposure

No matter how boring voters think politicians are, they can at least take comfort in this: Most candidates are much more interesting in real life than in cyberspace. On-line, they can be real snoozers.

When it comes to campaigning in cyberspace, it seems that many politicians just don't get it. This is the first presidential election campaign where the Internet is playing a noticeable role. Maybe the technology is too new; maybe they're just playing it safe.

President Clinton's campaign site on the Internet's World Wide Web is highly graphical. The problem is, it takes a long time for the computer to display the photos.

"There are lots of glossy images," complains Rita Whillock, associate director of the Center for Communication at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "I don't go to the Web for glossy images."

The Web site of Bob Dole, GOP presidential nominee, is spicier. Visitors can customize the site by choosing which issues to highlight, make their own Dole for President pin, even take a Bob Dole quiz. Still, after one visit, only the truly committed will come back to the site.

"The mainstream candidates are reacting to the Internet the same way newspapers are reacting to it," says Owen Smith, professor of newspaper-operations management at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. "They are playing it very conservative."

Boon to small parties

The vacuum is allowing third-party candidates and individual activists to use the Internet's unique strengths to mount grass-roots campaigns. In many cases, they have no choice. Cyberspace is the only outreach they can afford.

"The Internet made us into a presence that's significant in politics in the United States," says Cameron Spitzer, who runs the Internet site of the Greens Party. "It gives us a place where not only can we get out a sound bite and a slogan and a candidate's face, we can put out an index [of campaign documents]. There's no other way that we could have made that available to 20 million people."

As important as the Web is in making information available, regular electronic mail is even more powerful, activists say.

"The hardest challenge of politics is getting people together, whether it's in our particular community or around the country," says Ed Schwartz, a longtime activist in Philadelphia who has just published a book called "NetActivism: How Citizens Use the Internet."

With electronic mail, "you can sit in your living room every night, and you're running your own little political operation," he says.

Mr. Schwartz uses a variation of electronic mail called a "listserv." Listservs work like an automatic mailing list for a group of subscribers. Whenever a subscriber sends a message, each subscriber sees it. Schwartz started his listserv, called Neighborhoods Online, only last year. But he's already beginning to see how the technology allows neighborhood activists across the country to share ideas and ask each other questions.

When it works, it works well. An electronic-mail message, for example, helped spark what has become a national movement to wire schools at no cost to taxpayers. Through at least November, volunteers are converging on schools around the country to wire them up and make them Internet-ready. The effort started in California in March. (If you have access to the Web, point your browser to http://www.netday96.org for more information.)

Sometimes Internet activism gets out of control. Two weeks ago, the phones of information provider Lexis-Nexis lit up from customers enraged that the company was selling personal information about individuals, including their Social-Security numbers. The furor jammed the company's lines, spilled over onto the lines of an unrelated St. Louis company whose toll-free number mistakenly was put out, and attracted national media attention.

Power of the Internet

What got it started? Someone posted a complaint on a listserv, which got passed around the Internet even though it was only partially true. It was a powerful lesson in how the Internet can empower individuals.

"Whatever Lexis-Nexis did or didn't do, even if they were totally blameless, this facilitated a discussion of the larger issue" about privacy and the amount of personal information being compiled and sold, says Dick Bell, interactive media director for the Democratic National Committee. "This was not a top-down thing. This came from the bottom up. And that's the kind of change that the Internet will introduce."

Mr. Bell is one of the strategists pushing mainstream politicians to make better use of the Internet. At this year's Democratic convention, for example, he created a Web site with special software that allowed anyone to "chat" on-line. The chat sessions attracted leading luminaries, including various Cabinet members and candidates.

The same technology will be used at the presidential debates later this month to allow voters to debate about the debates. "Chat on the Web allows people to communicate a lot quicker and easier than any other medium," says Harry Pape, marketing manager of ichat Inc., the Austin, Texas, company that developed the technology.

In cyberspace, as in real life, communication is what politics is all about.

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