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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 January 2008, 14:17 GMT
US campaigns go networking on the net
By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC, Silicon Valley, California

Hillary Clinton's Facebook site (top); Barack Obama's MySpace site (below)
Supporters can discuss politics on their Facebook and MySpace sites
In many ways, politics is all about social networking - getting in touch with people, talking to them, and signing them up to your cause.

So, it might not come as a surprise that in the 2008 US presidential elections, online social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace are playing a big role.

The headquarters of Facebook are in the Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, California. For a company which boasts more than 60 million users, its offices are unassuming - no big flashing signs outside, just a simple, glass-fronted building.

Facebook was only in its fledgling stages during the last presidential election in 2004. This time round, all the major candidates have a presence on the site which even co-hosted the televised presidential debates in New Hampshire.

"What we've done is taken this two-hour debate format and extended it to a six or 12-month debate dialogue among users who care about these issues," says Dan Rose, Vice President of Business Development at Facebook.

Graffiti in Facebook office
Drawing on the walls helps the Facebook developers hatch ideas
Inside the HQ, graffiti decorates the walls. Here, developers work on the US politics application on the site.

"We're giving them a way to communicate with their friends about the issues that matter to them. Users can notify their friends of which politicians they support, which makes that a very public action and allows users to talk about why they support those politicians," says Mr Rose.

News sources

In the small Silicon Valley office used by the Barack Obama campaign there are computers and laptops everywhere. Using the internet to canvass supporters is a key part of the strategy here.

If you ever desire any information about any of these candidates you can easily find it at the touch of a button
Brian Rikuda

"I think the internet is our most important organising tool at this point," says Matthew Haney, 25, a Stanford law student who has been volunteering for the campaign.

"We use the internet to let people know what's going on, to spread the word about Senator Obama.

"Students and young people have really been the engine behind this campaign and all of these folks are on the internet and that's really the way we can access them."

For Americans aged between 18 and 29, the web has become the leading source of campaign news.

Graph showing use of net for campaign news

One student, Brian Rikuda, told me he spends five hours a day online, and gathers 95-99% of his news from the net.

He says the internet is making politics more accessible.

"If you ever desire any information about any of these candidates you can easily find it at the touch of a button...

"I typically won't just look at one source. I look at multiple sources and the truth is usually somewhere in between."

Ron online

For many internet users seeking political information, knowing what you can and can't trust online is a big issue, especially because the internet is so hard to police.

Ron Paul supporters
Supporters of Republican candidate Ron Paul trust the internet

But for some the internet is the only source they have confidence in.

Most fans of Republican candidate Ron Paul fall into this category, according to the head of his Silicon Valley supporters group, Kathy McGrade.

"Ron Paul supporters for the most part, came to trust the internet before they ever even joined the campaign," says Kathy.

"They came to an understanding of where the real problem lies. Which is that the other news sources are not reliable."

Although Mr Paul is not generally considered a front-runner to take his party's nomination, he tops many internet polls and has a huge online following.

Message waiting

But some who work in traditional media do not see the internet having a major influence on this election.

Yahoo News: 22%
Google News: 9%
Fox News: 9%
AOL News: 7%
New York Times: 6%
Drudge Report: 3%
MySpace: 3%
YouTube: 2%
BBC: 2%
USA Today: 1%
Washington Post: 1%
Source: Pew Research Center
For Jim Brewer, political editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and a veteran of many campaigns, the key thing is that the candidates have a message and good organisation on the ground.

"We're talking about the internet actually creating something. I don't think it creates anything. I think it's an avenue to reaching people. And then you have to have something to say," he says.

Fans of the internet say the increased availability of information on the web is stimulating democracy.

But sceptics say the real test will be whether the interest generated online is translated to a higher turnout at the ballot box.

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