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After the incredible success of Barack Obama's technology-powered campaign for the White House, JOHN HARRIS looks at how the same tools can be debased for political deceit.

I blame Barack Obama for the low points of this month’s State election campaign.

Specifically I refer to the Family Farce how-to-vote cards handed out at voting booths and the stream of “concerned citizen” letters and phone messages that bombarded voters in marginal electorates.

As epitomised by the phenomenal success of Obama’s conquest of the White House, technology provides a powerful tool for engaging a mass movement: Used wrong-headedly, these same tools can be debased into a deceitful campaign tactic of community charades.

About a month before Obama got the top job, a mate from the Fourth Estate and I spent two weeks driving through the southern US. We even made it to Mississippi for the first McCain-Obama debate.

It was a remarkable time to visit America. The global financial system shattered around us; entire towns declined cash advances on my Visa card; and the Australian dollar did a gold medal-winning Olympic dive.

We spoke to a former Marine who was homeless because an insurance company refused to pay for his medical costs from a work injury; to a guy whose late 74-year-old uncle with cancer had been loaned $630,000 to buy a $540,000 house (was worth less than half the amount owed); to voters who thought Obama too socialist in the same week that Dubya offered $700 billion to save Wall Street.

And don’t mention the wars!

In short, it was a time ripe for change.

That desire for change was personified by Barack Obama: Just as the election of the first black president was transformative for US politics, Obama’s money-mobilising campaign transformed the political process.

Obama won the US presidency because of his phenomenal fundraising form. While his rivals, Hilary Clinton and John McCain, at times scrambled for cash, Obama’s Internet-fuelled campaign raked in millions of dollar every month from small donations.

Without that vast flow of money, not all the Gettysburg eloquence in the history of the United States would have won Obama the White House.

Obama used technology – databases; the Internet; email, websites and even iPhone applications – to mobilise a national movement for change.

Underpinned by technology, Obama’s campaign tapped into and gave voice to a genuine frustration with a Bush Administration that was out of touch with the times.

Through my Organizing for America | Obama 08 iPhone app, I’ve received emails signed by Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and various leaders of his Administration marking milestones and asking for my continued support for “change we can believe in”.

By contrast, our State election leant more towards the slogan “change we can deceive in”.

While imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, the bogus community concern and hokey how-to-vote cards display a morally corrupt pursuit of power that debases whatever it achieves.

As Obama demonstrated, technology such as email marketing, customised websites, on-demand printing; automated diallers; voter databases and precision polling are powerful tools for eliciting authentic community concerns: The same tools can also perpetuate incredible deceit.

John Harris is managing director of Impress Media Australia. Email jharris@impress.com.au.

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