Will web be central election playing field in 2008?
Last Updated Sept. 4, 2008
At the conclusion of the last Ontario election, I wrote an article that addressed the question of whether the integration of political campaigns and the internet had reached a watershed moment, that point at which the internet would play a central role in influencing both the direction and outcome of an election. At the time, I said no, but now I believe that 2008 is the year in which political use of the internet will reach a historic turning point.
This is true in part because of what we've witnessed in the U.S. presidential primaries in which the two nominees, Barack Obama for the Democrats and John McCain of the Republicans, have used the internet to overcome opponents who were initially much stronger and seemingly destined for victory.
Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton, and his ability to raise record amounts of money, have come in large part because of his innovative use of social networking and open internet-based organizing.
McCain, on the other hand, has achieved a similar upset, at one point running out of funds and turning to the internet to organize town halls and circulate campaign videos when unable to buy advertising time on television.
Heading into the general election, both candidates will use the internet as their primary organizing platform for soliciting funds and getting out the vote. In addition, the internet will also be the primary battleground for proxy attacks and accusations that would not otherwise be acceptable or tolerable in the campaign proper.
Anticipation of Canadian innovation
Here in Canada, a federal election appears imminent. Internet researchers who have been fascinated by the developments in the U.S. are waiting in eager anticipation to see if the Canadian election will yield similar innovation.
While political campaigns have employed internet strategies for some time, what's changing in the current electoral cycle is the combination of social networking technology and the ability to more accurately measure the activities of party loyalists and other supporters across diverse platforms.
In the case of the latter phenomenon, researchers and journalists now have access to all sorts of visualization tools and internet tracking services that allow for the documentation and analysis of trends and levels of candidate or issue support. For example, the Toronto-based Infoscape Research Lab tracks blogs, YouTube and Facebook for material related to Canadian elections, political news and current affairs.
Several similar sites exist that are monitoring the U.S. election. The website TechPresident.com provides metrics on political activity at all the major social media websites such as Flickr, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, as well as MeetUp events, search strings and blogs.
Ecoresearch.net provides a similar service, and a site called Presidentialwatch08.com differentiates itself by providing visual maps and charts that provide an entirely different way of gauging the activity and attitudes of online activists and party enthusiasts engaged in the political process. Perspctv.com also adds real time monitoring of chatter via twitter, blogs and other sources.
The campaign that never ends
In a column in the Hill Times, Ryerson University Prof. Greg Elmer, director of the Infoscape Research Lab, referred to all this activity as the emergence of the permanent campaign. Bloggers, YouTubers and Facebook users are the front-line soldiers in a non-stop campaign that seeks to maintain momentum while also bombarding opponents with attacks, always looking for their vulnerabilities or positioning to capitalize on their mistakes.
This plays right into the 24-7 news cycle. All the major news organizations have embraced social media and citizen journalism, offering a range of opportunities for their audiences to get involved in coverage.
This is the year in which the concept of citizen journalism will be properly tested and evaluated. If it works, it will become the norm for political coverage, and if it fails, cynical news executives might feel pressure to allocate limited budgets elsewhere.
CNN, for example, partnered with YouTube to hold a Republican and Democratic debate that featured YouTube users who submitted their questions via the site. Similarly, MTV has recruited video bloggers (vloggers) to cover the campaign, hoping to provide a type of localized reporting that speaks to viewers in a language they can understand.
ABC has partnered with Facebook to create an extensive platform for political engagement and debate, offering space for both professional and citizen journalists to provide coverage. Facebook is still the fastest growing social networking platform and has attracted politicians, candidates, party supporters, academics and activists who see potential in its organizing and advocacy capabilities.
When voters revolt
However, there's something to be said about the fact that an anti-Hillary Clinton Facebook group grows faster than a pro-Barack Obama group. Organizing online is often far easier when working against something than when mobilizing support for it.
Similarly, there are risks to opening up online organizing platforms, as the more the internet is employed, the less control the campaign team can wield overall.
For example, after Obama defeated Clinton but before the actual convention, some of his policy positions were changed to appeal to a broader electorate, and this caused thousands to use his campaign website to revolt and express their displeasure.
As the campaign proceeds, Obama will continue to be vulnerable to his online supporters in case they once again hijack his website to express their displeasure with his move to the political centre.
Here in Canada, for example, Facebook recently played a central role in staging a revolt against copyright legislation introduced by Industry Minister Jim Prentice, who underestimated the level of public interest in the issue. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have signed up for groups opposing Bill C61 and many of those have been in contact with their MPs over the summer. It will be interesting to see if this energy can be carried into an election, making copyright a surprise issue that would have otherwise been ignored.
The proof will be in the ballot box
The real test of course is whether the impact of the internet on campaigns will translate into ballot box success.
The Obama campaign has spent considerable energy towards the end of the summer in trying to convert their online supporters into local organizers by staging Camp Obama events around the U.S. with an eye on training volunteers towards voter mobilization on election day.
Similarly the McCain campaign has tried to emulate the example set by the Obama team in employing an online social network as a central apparatus of their organizing efforts.
However, this keeps that problem of control at the forefront, struggling to ensure the integrity of your message and the focus of your campaign in an online storm that is perpetually changing.
In the U.S., the campaigns are willing to take a greater risk because the rewards are quite substantial.
However, here in Canada, our political parties seem to be conservative and risk-averse when it comes to the internet, although perhaps this upcoming election will be different.
Certainly the negative side of internet attack campaigns will be in ample supply, but what about the positive and empowering aspects as demonstrated by the Obama campaign? Canadians can only hope.
Jesse Hirsh is based in Toronto and can be contacted via jessehirsh.com [will open in a new window]
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