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Following in the footsteps of Trekkies for Obama.

Following in the footsteps of Trekkies for Obama

Are you a fan of the cult TV science-fiction series Star Trek? Are your politics vaguely left of centre? If so, the website democraticstuff.com has just the thing for you - a lapel badge bearing the Vulcan salute and the slogan 'Trekkies for Obama'.

They were produced by the thousand during the 2008 US presidential-election campaign, along similar merchandise targeting 'Vegetarians for Obama', 'Beekeepers for Obama' and even 'Dog-walkers for Obama' and 'Mohawks for Obama'.

They are clear examples of so-called 'viral marketing', which uses existing social networks to increase the awareness of a brand. And the Obama campaign team deployed viral marketing brilliantly.

The internet, too, was a campaign triumph for the Obama team. Through forums and social websites such as MySpace and Facebook, the Senator from Illinois built relationships with confirmed and potential supporters, particularly among younger and first-time voters. He then kept them updated through e-mails and text messages.

Politicians across the world watched, listened and learned. In particular, Labour Party activists who worked to support Obama in swing states across America returned to Britain fired with enthusiasm about the new shape of political campaigning. But they recognized that not all of the Obama tactics would work in every political environment. In this context, in Benchmarking: An International Journal, Volume 16, Issue 6, Green explores the benchmark applications associated with the election of President Obama and draws out the implications of how future political strategies may be planned.

At the height of the 2008 US presidential election campaign, the Wikipedia entry about Republican contender Senator John McCain of Arizona said that he was 'born in Florida in the then American-controlled Panama Canal zone'.

The Wikipedia page on UK Conservative leader David Cameron, meanwhile, once claimed that his father bought him the Tory Party, while the entry on Liberal-Democrat leader Nick Clegg stated that he had slept with 3,000 women and become a member of hip-hop collective the Wu Tang Clan.

Such evidently false, malicious or biased material can easily find its way on to a site that, famously, anyone can edit. While incorrect and offensive content tends to be swiftly removed by other Wikipedia contributors or the site's volunteer administrators, there is often a time-lag. The John McCain claim, for example, remained on the site for more than three days and was visited more than 90,000 times before it was corrected.

In Volume 37, Issue 3 of Reference Services Review, West and Williamson assessed the reliability of Wikipedia by analyzing the completeness, accuracy, presentation, objectivity and overall quality of more than 100 randomly generated entries covering the arts, popular culture, geography, history, science, technology and politics. The authors found that, overall, the articles were objective, clearly presented, reasonably accurate and complete. However, some were poorly written, shallow and contained unsubstantiated information.

With the number of entries reaching three million, and the site in a constant state of flux, Wikipedia alone is never going to be reliable enough source material for a PhD thesis, or even for GCSE coursework. But it does provide a useful first point of contact - a quick and rough introduction to more or less anything than anyone happens to be searing for.

Few would agree with the hard-line approach taken by one UK newspaper editor, who has banned his journalists from using Wikipedia for their stories, but most would accept the counsel of another: 'Use it if you must - but with caution.'