The politics of Politics 2.0Posted in Reality Check Posted on October 13, 2008 05:42 PM | Permalink
By Ira Basen
This was the year it was all supposed to change.
This was to be the first Canadian campaign of the Politics 2.0 era, the election where the newest interactive web tools would allow users to easily create, share, and distribute their own political content on blogs, social network sites like Facebook, video-sharing sites like YouTube, and instant messaging applications like Twitter.
In the process, they were to change the political equation forever.
No longer would campaigns be run from the smoky backrooms. Howard Dean, whose quixotic 2004 run for the Democratic presidential nomination was the first to reveal the potential power of the internet, has called the web "the most important tool for re-democratizing the world since Gutenberg invented the printing press."
The era of the "one-way campaign" is coming to an end, Dean said. "It's not about communicating our message to you anymore; it's about listening to you first before we formulate the message."
For the true believers of Politics 2.0, the power of mainstream TV and of spin-doctors and message tracks would all diminish in the era of "open-source politics."
In the U.S., those true believers have created the extraordinary online juggernaut that appears poised to propel Barack Obama to the White House next month.
Obama uses the web for all the usual campaign functions; raising money, pushing his message, keeping supporters and the press abreast of what he is doing and saying.
But the revolutionary aspect of Obama's online operation has not been so much its ability to use the web to talk to supporters as its ability to allow them to talk to each other, to form real and virtual communities that inspire others, especially young people, who have never before been politically engaged.
On his website, Obama writes "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington. I'm asking you to believe in yours."
He is not just running a campaign, he is using the web to try to create a political movement.
North of the 49
But let's be blunt. If the Obama campaign represents the full maturation of Politics 2.0 (although new technologies will undoubtedly push the frontiers even further in the future), the Canadian campaign of 2008 shows all the signs of teenage awkwardness.
There has been plenty of hype about the power of political bloggers to change the nature of the contest, but the reality has largely been more of the same.
There may be thousands of political bloggers out there, actively engaged in the campaign trenches, but what has their real contribution been?
Yes, about a dozen candidates have been expelled or cut adrift by their parties for indiscretions exposed, in most cases, by bloggers. And commentators like Jonathan Kay of the National Post have celebrated these "trophies that Canadian bloggers can put on their collective mantelpieces."
But is that progress? Over the course of the past 140 years, there have undoubtedly been many Canadian office-seekers who have held highly unconventional views on a variety of subjects, or have had youthful indiscretions they'd prefer not to talk about.
Lucky for them there was no internet search engine to expose them and many probably went on to serve their country well.
Had William Lyon Mackenzie King, the country's longest-serving PM, shared his often bizarre musings on a personal blog or on Facebook, instead of the privacy of his diary, his political career would likely never have gotten off the ground.
These "trophies" on bloggers' mantelpieces are collateral damage in the Politics 2.0 revolution. But they are essentially a sideshow.
The problem is that there has been little in this campaign to indicate that either the parties or their supporters really understand how the web can engage people around issues and bring people, especially young people, into the political process.
Yes, all the parties have their requisite Facebook and YouTube pages. Some have even discovered Twitter. But they are using these web 2.0 applications in a very traditional way: to push messages out and engage in one-way communications.
Allowing partisans to create online negative ads targeted at the opposition, as the Conservatives did with Stephane Dion at notaleader.com, is not exactly what Politics 2.0 is supposed to be about.
On the other hand, a video created by Quebec artist Michel Rivard, spoofing the Harper government's cuts to arts programs, has provided possibly the only real hint of what the future of Canadian campaigns might look like. The video quickly went viral and may have helped sink Conservative hopes for winning very many seats in that province.
Get out and vote
In the end, elections are not about posting videos to YouTube, or sharing pictures and stories on Facebook, or blogging, or Twittering. The most important form of political engagement in our democracy remains the act of voting.
In the last Canadian election, only about 42 per cent of first-time voters were estimated to have actually voted, compared to a national turnout of more than 64 per cent. In the U.S, the picture has not been much brighter. Turnout rate among voters aged 18-24 was only 46 per cent in 2004.
But something remarkable has happened in the U.S. this year. In the Democratic primaries, the number of young people voting tripled in some states. No state showed an increase of less than 40 per cent.
In next month's presidential election, it is widely expected that turnout among young voters will increase by more than 50 per cent over 2004. The overwhelming majority of those votes will be cast for Barack Obama.
There are undoubtedly many reasons why Obama has captured the enthusiasm of young voters. But certainly his ability to reach them where they live — online — and his use of social networks to allow them to create communities independent of his campaign organization, has played a large role in building their enthusiasm.
In Canada, not so much
In Canada, no such transformation appears to be underway. According to a poll conducted by the Innovation Research Group for the Dominion Institute, only 50 per cent of young voters said they were "definitely" planning to vote on October 14, which probably means substantially fewer than that will actually find their way to the polling station. (In 2006, 57 per cent said they would definitely vote, but only 42 per cent showed up.)
Again, there are many reasons for this lack of enthusiasm, but certainly part of it can be explained by the fact that no one has successfully used the web to engage younger voters in the issues or the candidates that matter to them in this election.
Until that happens, until we start to see younger voters turning out in the numbers we are currently seeing in the U.S., Politics 2.0 in Canada, for all the hype generated by its proponents, will remain just another unmet campaign promise.
About the Authors
Ira Basen joined CBC Radio in 1984 and was senior producer at Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He was involved in the creation of three network programs The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997) and Workology (2001), and produced the award- winning radio documentary series Spin Cycles (2007). He has also written for Saturday Night, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus. He taught at the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario, and Ryerson. He is a co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists (Knopf, 2005).
John Gray has worked for a number of Canadian newspapers, including most recently more than 20 years with the Globe and Mail, where he served as Ottawa bureau chief, national editor, foreign editor, foreign correspondent and national correspondent
Mark Gollom has been a news writer for CBCNews.ca since 2003. He's worked as a reporter at the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Sun. Mark has a degree in political science from the University of Western Ontario and a diploma in journalism from Centennial College in Toronto.