"Death panel." Two words posted online ignited the national healthcare debate and arguably led to the crimson tide that swept the nation in the midterm elections November 2.
So much has changed in the political world since those two words were posted in August of 2009 -- eons ago in Internet time -- that their significance has been overlooked. It's not just the potency of the image created by those words that's important, it's how they were delivered and by whom. In the age of instant communication, a Facebook post by a private citizen proved more powerful than the presidential pulpit.
While President Obama's mastery of the online channel as a campaign marketing medium helped to propel him to an historic victory, the Internet is now used as a weapon of mass destruction against his agenda. Today, a Tweet of 140 characters or less can take the POTUS' TOTUS (President of the United States' Teleprompter of the United States) off message.
So how has free speech online changed politics? Here are 10 outcomes of the Web's influence on politics, and their possible impact -- good, bad, or ugly:
1. The media monster still lives.
Bad: The mainstream media bemoans the loss of their monopoly on the message.
Good: Those who adapt survive. The method of delivery is changing, but the beast lives on as shown by the merger of Newsweek, the print magazine launched in 1933, and The Daily Beast, a two-year-young 24/7 news, commentary, culture, and entertainment site.
Ugly: From cacophony to consolidation, a natural weeding-out process will continue.
2. Fiction becomes fact.
Bad: Open access sometimes means unfiltered fiction becomes fact merely by repetition and reposting. And propaganda is easily propagated.
Good: Though there are now millions of instant, anonymous experts online, there are also legions of fact-checkers ready to pounce. The old retail mantra, buyer beware, holds true in the Internet age.
Ugly: Truth never travels at the speed of lies. And lies are never recalled.
3. An echo chamber is born.
Bad: Voices that agree are amplified and critical inquiry can be muted. Do top-trending hashtags truly show a trend, or are they merely echoes rippling to infinity?
Good: The once-unheard gain a stronger voice.
4. YouTube is ubiquitous.
Good: Every cellphone-armed citizen is a video journalist, ready to capture any injustice or infringement on liberty.
Bad: Fearful of the next "Macaca" moment, politicians speak fewer words on the campaign trail.
5. Politics is local no longer.
6. The poison pen prevails.
Bad: Corporations and Capitol Hill often waste time, money, and resources focusing on reactive messaging rather than good governance.
7. The sun shines on shadows.
Bad: A Wikileak lesson -- when secrets are no longer, lives are put in danger.
Good but ugly: Sunshine laws give the public instant access online to information on how tax dollars are spent, and how the government works.
8. The people have the power.
9. We are alone no more.
Good or bad: Movements are born at the moment when just two people agree.
Bad: Big Brother is watching.
10. You cannot have Rwanda again.
Good: "You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken." – Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, UK
Good, bad, and ugly -- blogs, posts, texts, and Tweets give power back to the people. It's the founders' ultimate fulfillment of freedom of the press as they intended. Not freedom of the press, a media organization, as we understand it in modern terms, but freedom of the printing press. Ordinary citizens now have free and unfettered access to be heard on the public square.
Is free speech online good for democracy? The Internet has become the ultimate leveler. The battle between Twitter and TOTUS may be ugly, but it is good.
— Mark McKinnon has worked for both Democratic and Republican political campaigns. He is co-chairman of Arts+Labs , an alliance of the technology, content, and creative communities.