— Video websites and blogs have grown into a major force in the US election campaign, providing an unbridled and widely read counterpoint to the traditional media, a survey shows.
"In many respects, bloggers are acting like print reporters and people who are taking videos are acting like TV reporters," say Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a think tank based in Washington DC, US. "The Internet is becoming another media actor in the political communications environment."
According to a survey released by the think tank in September 2006, on a typical day in August, 26 million Americans used the internet to find news or information about politics and the 7 November midterm elections.
This figure is two-and-a-half times larger than the number of people who used the internet for political news during the 2002 midterms.
The impact of this new factor in the current election campaign has been demonstrated by a slew of videos showing embarrassing missteps by politicians.
One of the more famous "gotcha" moments posted on YouTube involved George Allen, a Republican senator from Virginia who was caught on camera using the racial slur "macaca" in referring to an opponent's campaign worker.
Allen saw a steep drop in his poll ratings after the video was posted on YouTube, which boasts more than 20 million visitors per month and which was recently bought by Google for $1.65 billion.
Another candidate who has felt the sting of YouTube is Conrad Burns, a 71-year-old Republican senator from Montana who was shown in a video dozing off at a hearing.
A separate video shows him joking about the legal status of the "nice little Guatemalan man" who works at his house and a third has him warning constituents about a faceless enemy terrorist who is a "taxi driver in the daytime but a killer at night".
Many of the embarrassing videos are posted by campaigners for rival candidates or by anonymous people. Republican supporters have hit back with their own video clips, including one showing the "hypocrisy" of Democrat politicians in statements made concerning Iraq.
Bloggers have in turn been using the videos, as well as incidents reported in the mainstream media, to comment on campaigns and mobilise activists.
Candidates are furthermore turning to social networking sites, like MySpace, in the hope of garnering support from younger voters, a group notoriously difficult to engage in politics, Rainie says.
Joe Trippi, who ran Democrat Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign and who pioneered use of the internet for fundraising, says the web will play an increasingly important role in political campaigns, both in the US and abroad.
"I have envy for the tools they have in this election," he told AFP. "I think the internet is becoming much more powerful and clearly affecting many races around the country."
Rainie says that, although polls suggest blogs and video sites are affecting public opinion, "we don't know yet whether the change in opinion is momentary or whether it really creates a big problem for candidates. We won't know until election day."