Web awaits its electoral watershed moment
Last Updated Oct. 15, 2007
By Jesse Hirsh
How central a role does the internet play in the electoral process?
That question came up a lot during the recent Ontario provincial election. What transpired certainly sheds light on what may happen in the upcoming Canadian federal election, as well as how online trends are changing the way campaigns are run.
In the history of politics and media, the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debate was a watershed moment when it came to establishing the dominant role of colour television. While the web has played an important role in the past several elections, we've yet to have the kind of shared experience that not only defines a campaign, but demonstrates its power and potential.
Some would argue that the moment has already passed, but this is the result of a disconnect between the general electorate and the political class (i.e. the politicians, party activists, journalists and current affairs experts whose BlackBerrys keep them hooked into a 24/7 political spin cycle). The people participating in the political process tend to be well-connected, net-savvy and driven enough to search out less-popular websites and sources of information online. As far as they're concerned, the internet is already playing a central role in influencing the political process.
However, the general population still gets most of its political information from traditional media sources, such as newspapers, radio and television. Perhaps some of it is delivered by the internet, but rarely does it come from venues outside the mainstream news sources.
The Infoscape Research Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto tracks political internet activity in Canada. During the Ontario provincial campaign, its research demonstrated a remarkably small audience for online political videos, blogs and discussion groups. While the audience for this material may be influential, the public at large still seems to be impervious to the breadth and diversity of information available online.
Unfortunately, this is also reflected in the fact that Ontario's election had the lowest voter turnout in provincial history. Only 52.6 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot, which means 4.4 million out of a pool of 8.4 million voting-aged citizens, in a province with a total population of 11.4 million (according to the 2006 census).
Despite the hopes that the internet can play a role in helping increase voter turnout and engage new and young voters, it's obviously not.
Part of the problem is that online technology seems to be quite effective at predicting the outcome of elections. Mainstream campaign coverage is dominated by polls that tell the public exactly what they're thinking. Internet sites employ collaborative editors who sift through publicly available polling data and seem to be able to accurately predict outcomes. To some, this may beg the question of whether voting at all is worth the effort.
A larger problem arises in the ability of parties to take advantage of the gap between online spin cycles and mainstream media coverage. Recognizing that online media is largely consumed by the political class, parties wage two parallel campaigns. The one online targets the media, and the one in newspapers and broadcast outlets targets the general public.In this past election, the Liberals were most effective at managing the duality. Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty came across in public as positive and above the fray. That's why the headlines after he won a second majority government referred to him as Mr. Nice Guy and described the Liberal campaign as being safe and bland.
Meanwhile, the party's internet campaign was a consistent and non-stop flow of negative spin, primarily via the spoof site ToryTube.ca, focusing its attacks on their Progressive Conservative opponent John Tory and his plan to fund religious schools.
In contrast, Tory's largely negative broadcast campaign and otherwise positive internet campaign sought to use social networking technology to build and energize the party's grassroots. While Tory tried to challenge the premier's record in the mainstream media, on the internet the Progressive Conservatives were far more interactive and accessible.
McGuinty, meanwhile, had a slick website with zero interactivity.
It wasn't until the final stage of the election that the Tory campaign unveiled a spoofed negative version of the Liberals' Dalton.ca, located at the domain DaltonMcGuinty.ca. While the party has owned the domain for years, they saved its unveiling until the last moment and even added obvious disclaimers. At that point, it had little effect against the Liberals' viral video campaigns.
Blueprint for the future?
With each day that passes, it seems increasingly likely that a federal election will happen before the end of 2007, and this Ontario campaign will serve as a blueprint for both the Liberals and the Conservatives. The duality and disconnection between the internet side of the campaign and the mainstream media will likely be pronounced.
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion will likely present himself as a positive new leader who's concerned about the environment, while his war room will use the internet to attack his opponents and revive the spectre of Stephen Harper's secret agenda.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, will probably build their public campaign on their track-record in government, while using the internet to lampoon Dion as a weak leader and attack the Liberal party as being arrogant and corrupt.
As long as a gap exists between those who get information via the internet and those who rely upon traditional media, this type of two-faced campaigning will flourish. The internet makes it difficult for a party or leader to control their message, but it is quite effective at disrupting and attacking an opponent or their message.
Thus, from the perspective of propaganda, we can say the internet has reached a new level of dominant influence.
However, no politician or party has yet won an election by using the web's capability for organizing and mobilizing, rather than just political spin. To do this would require a hybrid solution that spans platforms like YouTube and Facebook and employs social media strategies that transcend political affiliation and cross the gap between net-savvy activists and the general voting public. By harnessing the strengths and weaknesses of these popular emerging communications technologies, parties can increase political participation and reach people who aren't currently voting.
The problem with internet political organizing as it now exists, however, is the tendency to preach to the converted. While the internet is great at energizing existing partisans, it continues to fail at reaching new converts.
The internet seems to be about seeking sameness, as people tend to interact with each other in order to reinforce their identity, rather than explore and encounter new ones. Perhaps as this starts to change, so too will political culture. New leaders, and even new parties, may embrace the bottom-up grassroots ethic that gives the internet its dynamism and power.
Jesse Hirsh is a broadcaster, researcher and internet consultant based in Toronto. He appears regularly on CBC Newsworld and CBC radio, writes for CBCNews.ca and hosts an interfaith TV show called 3D Dialogue for OMNI/Rogers.
- Main page: Internet
- Net neutrality FAQ
- Life after Google
- Facebook photos
- Online outlook
- Facebook phonies
- Internet radio
- Social networking: Moms unite online
- Social networks
- Virtual worlds: Second Life
- Personal brands: Is your online image what it should be?
- Podcasts: The iPinion
- Virtual mourning
- VoIP at work
- Web awaits its electoral watershed moment
- The era of RIA: Rich internet applications transform the web
- Building online communities isn't as simple as it sounds