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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Today's internet has taken three decades to dominate the American political system, going from a wonkish yet campaign-trail-friendly bet on a connected future to a central force in the electoral process.

Catch up quick: Here's how the evolution has unfolded so far.

1992
  • The internet was still largely an academic network, but the Democrats' Clinton/Gore ticket made "building an information superhighway" a key plank of their pro-tech campaign.
  • Their victory opened the gate to the federal government's commercialization of the public-sector internet, blowing up the "Big Tech platforms" of their time — America Online, Compuserve, and Prodigy — and ushering in the Web era.
1996
  • The Web had begun to spark early-adopter enthusiasm but most voters weren't online.
  • When the septuagenarian GOP candidate Bob Dole tried to promote his campaign's website at the end of a TV debate, he botched the web address.
2000
  • Four years of dotcom-bubble internet growth made this the first election in which the online world played a significant role.
  • The Clinton impeachment saga left in its wake both big political email lists and charged-up partisan websites that jumped into the fray when the election outcome turned into a legal siege in Florida.
2004
  • Howard Dean's campaign on the left and, on the right, the rise of the "warbloggers" (post-9/11 hawks who brought conservative energy to the blogosphere) established a teeming new underbrush of digital activism that stoked political controversies online — notably, the debunking of Dan Rather's CBS story questioning Bush's military service and the "swiftboating" of John Kerry.
  • 2004 laid the groundwork for today's political environment of partisan trench warfare, online echo chambers, and competing-reality narratives.
2008
  • Obama's victory rested in part on his campaign's online fundraising and organizing savvy on an internet where Facebook and Twitter were both newcomers.
  • Democrats failed to follow up online post-election, ceding the digital advantage to a fired-up, Tea Party-inflected right.
2012
  • The first social-media election saw the stirrings of misinformation campaigns, including "birtherism" and controversies around the attack on the U.S. Benghazi mission. But online ad spends remained minuscule.
  • Leaked video from a Romney fundraiser — showing the GOP candidate talking about 47% of Americans who don't pay taxes — foreshadowed a future of information wars.
2016
  • Welcome to the social-media Thunderdome! Trump's upset win rested on many foundations, but cornerstones included a smart use of targeted online advertising and a flood of disinformation from both foreign and domestic sources.
  • Trump turned Twitter into a blaring megaphone for his political tactics and personal obsessions, effectively outmaneuvering the old-line political media and setting the election-news agenda.
2020
  • Facebook, YouTube, Twitter along with Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and other services: These platforms are where Americans now wrestle with their electoral choices, share news and argue over truth. They're also where campaigns spend an increasing share of their ad dollars.
  • With the coronavirus pandemic limiting in-person contact, the internet has become the primary channel for politics — putting a hot spotlight on the platforms' rule-makers and fueling charges of censorship and bias.

Go deeper

Twitter troll charged with 2016 election interference

Photo: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Justice Department charged a pro-Trump former Twitter user with election interference for posts encouraging users to vote via text in the 2016 election.

Why it matters: The DOJ believes this is the first criminal case charging an American with suppressing the vote via disinformation on Twitter.

Jan 27, 2021 - Technology

Facebook to downplay politics on its platform

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday said the company will dial back on pushing political groups and content to users.

Why it matters: Facebook is hoping to dim intense political pressure from conservatives and liberals by backing away from arguments it’s long made that political speech is vital to free expression.

33 mins ago - Health

WHO says Omicron poses "very high" risk

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaking in Geneva in October. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The World Health Organization said Monday in a new risk assessment that it believes the COVID-19 Omicron variant poses a "very high" risk to the globe because it may be more transmissible than other strains of the virus.

Why it matters: Though the WHO acknowledged there are still many uncertainties associated with the variant, the agency said it believes the likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron around the world is "high."