|The General Situation
Sticking with America, there are 215,088,545 Internet users as of Nov 07 for 71.4% penetration, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. There are 64,614,000 Internet broadband connections as of Dec 06, per FCC-CTIA. That's a little confusing, because many of those 64M broadband connections are shared, but from PEW we find that almost 50% of the population has access to a broadband connection and 15% is known to be on dial up (the remaining 6% didn't specify when asked).
I mention the distinction between dial-up and broadband because I think it matters a great deal in terms of what these people do online. I remember dial-up, and I rarely did much surfing. I would look up specific things I was interested in, but floating around was too frustrating and slow, and that was in the late 90s, when much more of the web was tuned for dial-up users. Today, with embedded videos and rich content flash ads in most every site, I imagine it is all the more frustrating for dial-up users. My routine in the world of dial-up was to connect to the internet, and then hit the button to check my mail on my Netscape mail client and walk away for a bit while my messages downloaded.
This is a key difference between email and browsing as applications on the internet: Email is a "push" where content is pushed to users. Browsing is pull, you choose what to get. There's a reason spammers love email so much and this is it.
Email, the Once and Still King of Internet Applications
Even today, the primary use of the internet is still email. No other single application is as widely used online.
Some e-marketing research:
According to eMarketer, a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey found that 91% of Internet users between the ages of 18 and 64 send or read e-mail, and an even higher number of users ages 65 or older do the same. The only other activity to even approach e-mail's popularity is using a search engine to find information.
In the US alone, 88% of adult Internet users have personal e-mail accounts. Further, 46% of them have e-mail access at work. Added together, eMarketer estimates that 147 million people across the country use e-mail, almost every day.
This is even higher than usage of search as an internet application (though I've seen varying figures for search as low as the high 60s). On a day-to-day basis email is the hands down winner in terms of what people do online.
Gmail is a late comer to the webmail game, and at 91M subscribers is far behind the big players, Microsoft and Yahoo, each with over 200M subscribers according to various industry reports. Still, I think 91M is "good enough" as long as gmail users are evenly distributed enough.
The idea is to create enough "Chain Breakers" who will investigate the truth of the claims, and hopefully hit "reply to all" and kill the infection in hundreds or thousands of different locations independently. 91M Gmail users (not all American of course) represents a substantial percentage of the total "live" set of email addresses. It's also the only set of email users one can reach with advertisements sensitive to the content of their email messages. So if say, 1 in 6 or even 1 in 10 email addresses is a gmail, then it means the odds are pretty good that for any person choosing to forward a memetic email, one of their recipients will be on gmail.
It looks like this:
So the ads are pretty prominent. If the ad said "learn why this email is false" or something direct, it would have a fairly good chance of getting the user's attention. If Obama's camp bought multiple ads, he could push all the others off the page (but that costs more).
Ad-Words Works In Searches Too
There is a steady hum of searching on Obama and topics related to the stuff in the email forwards going around. For comparison, see "Obama madrassa" which has the one spike of traffic when Fox News first ran the story, but drops off the chart thereafter. The emails keep flowing around though, and the searches ebb and flow.
If you search on "Obama muslim" the results are not great. Of the 10 links on the front page, currently 8 of them are pushing the lie. A sponsored link here would be a great help, and a lot more effective than any effort we could make to search engine optimize, given the great attention already paid to this subject we'd have a hard time doing much.
It's targeted, and cost-effective
Google ads only appear when relevant search terms are entered, and Obama's campaign would only pay when users actually click on the links. Further, this would give some kind of indication of how effective the tactic is.
So that's my case. For pennies a person, Obama would be able to roll back much of the harm this is doing him. This doesn't solve the general problem, in that many of the emails attacking liberal ideals don't have a named target who would want to pay for gmail ads to rebut the contents, but it might help on that front. These emails spread because people aren't too suspicious of them, and they trust the people who send them. If you learn that Bob forwarded you a pile of crap, you will be less trusting of the other things he forwards you and less inclined to think "it must be true, Bob knows this politics stuff!"
Use the Google, Barack.