By John Borland
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
In the right corner are the Free Republic's self-described "FReepers." On the left, the legions of Kos. At stake are the hearts and minds of millions of American voters.
Free Republic and the DailyKos are two of the ideologically driven Web logs, or blogs, that collectively have captured hundreds of thousands of readers, helped shape and speed the presidential campaign's dialog, and have contributed substantially to the powerful grassroots mobilization that many analysts say could tip the balance in Tuesday's election.
The political season has seen the Net come into its own as a medium of polemic, propaganda and bitterly accurate opposition fact-checking. Blogs and other politically themed Web sites are serving much the same role as that filled by the independent pamphleteers and political presses of earlier days, with a reach as powerful as it is sometimes narrow.
"It's very easy both to overestimate and underestimate them," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a Columbia University journalism professor who has focused on new media issues. "If you dismiss them as not important, you underestimate the...kind of influencers that read them. If you overestimate them, you forget that sometimes the people who are reading them are seeking the kind of news they want to hear."
Web logs dissect the political news from right to left.
Certainly the blogs have been a critical part of a campaign that has relied in unprecedented fashion on the Internet as a tool of information gathering and communication.
The political campaigns themselves have used their Web sites to raise millions of dollars in small grassroots contributions. They're using e-mail and Web tools to coordinate phone banks of volunteers in widely dispersed areas, all focusing on whichever states or cities look most important based on the latest polls.
Independent groups such as America Coming Together, the Club for Growth, MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have raised millions of dollars online to run campaign ads and send volunteers by the thousands into hotly contested districts.
Obsessed election-watchers are looking deeper than the national polls reported in every day's headlines to examine the running dynamics of state polls and electoral votes on sites like Electoral-Vote.com, which has challenged CNN as Google's most popular poll-watching tool.
But it is on the quick-shifting pages of the political blogs that
the real pulse of the campaign can be felt.
Most of these sites are maintained by people unaffiliated with either campaign, but who wear their political beliefs proudly on their sleeves. Some site operators say this open ideological affiliation is more honest than the approach taken by the mainstream media, with its avowed ethic of nonpartisan balance, and often more complicated than a simple right-left breakdown.
"Our ideas flow from a wellspring that is not easily constrained by simple patterns of predictable dogma," wrote one blogger under the handle "Bleeding Heart Conservative," in describing the generally anti-John Kerry Little Green Footballs blog. The site's operator "espouses policies that might fall under the rubric 'right wing,' but then you would have to explain how such an idea has no place on the left."
The bloggers have proven most influential as fact-checkers, providing hundreds or thousands of eyes critical of a news story or a candidate's assertion, in much the same way that legions of independent programmers often quickly find and fix bugs in open-source software.
It took conservative bloggers barely 20 minutes to raise serious and ultimately valid questions about the authenticity of National Guard memos relied on by CBS News that were ostensibly critical of President Bush's service.
Similarly, Vice President Dick Cheney's debate assertion that he had never met John Edwards before was contradicted in minutes by liberal bloggers, who posted photos of the two men together.
Blogs have also helped propagate conspiracy theories, such as the idea that Bush may have had a transmitter on his back that allowed him to be fed answers during the first debate.
But are they ultimately effective in moving votes? Media analysts and bloggers alike say they aren't as widely seen as are the newspapers or television. But they help mobilize potential volunteers and provide rhetorical fodder for people who will be talking to blog-deprived undecided voters.
"My blog doesn't really speak to undecided voters," said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who runs the liberal DailyKos blog from Berkeley, Calif. "I want to talk to Democratic Party activists. I want them to become active participants and to use the site to get information that they can use to convince undecided voters. That's my job. Their job is to convince people to vote for Kerry."