I love to hear about the new and exciting ways in which the Internet and related technologies are going to transform our political system forever. I’m directly involved in such efforts myself, fiddling about with a number of projects whose aim is to apply the web to politics or vice versa. However I can’t bring myself to believe the predictions of those who tell us that we’re entering into an era of web-based democracy. From Karlin Lillington’s recent piece in The Irish Times titled “Web-based politics and democracy for the 21st century” (subscription required):
In the past in Ireland, air and print- time for politicians and parties was highly controlled around elections and the domain of the established media. However, that is all going to change. New technologies and services enable all sorts of small guerilla actions by individuals who can, anonymously if they wish, post unflattering or flattering material on a candidate onto a blog, a picture site or a video site. Likewise, expect candidates and parties themselves to use such tactics, probably anonymously of course, but not always.
I expect this is true, although I’m not sure if the impact of such activity, and of the other examples of “web-based politics” provided by Lillington, will be significant enough to justify her closing line:
Politicians and political parties, welcome to 21st-century web-based democracy. This is your official wake-up call.
I have a very simple theory about the role which the Internet and related technology will play in the next election. I’ve been sharing it with anyone who will listen for the past couple of years, so I may as well spell it out here. In summary, there is a small but increasing cohort of voters who will use the web sites of candidates as their main point of reference in deciding where to allocate their votes. That’s it.
You’ll note that my theory doesn’t mention blogging, the disruptive influence of the citizen media, guerrilla YouTube videos, or reinventing politics for the Internet age. In other words, it’s not a very sexy theory. But I believe it to be valid. There are a lot of voters out there for whom the web is the first point-of-contact when shopping, researching, or just browsing for fun stuff, and I expect many of them will take the same approach when deciding on where to direct their votes. They will expect each candidate’s web site to clearly lay out the candidate’s position on the main issues of concern, to demonstrate a track record of activity on these issues, and to generally convey the impression that the candidate is worthy of their vote.
Some voters may be influenced by what they read about candidates, parties, and policies on blogs and online discussion forums. Having hung around politics.ie for a few years now, I’ve seen a few minor examples of posters changing certain political opinions after engaging in online debate. Here’s a thread on which you can find a couple of examples. However, the vast majority of people who enage in debate on these sites are already politically committed, and in many cases are out-and-out party hacks. In my view this is not a medium through which to secure the support of floating voters.
It seems to me that blogs, podcasts, videos etc. will have a negligible impact on the outcome of the election. This doesn’t mean that candidates shouldn’t make use of them, indeed I think they can go a long way towards conveying the messages I refer to above. However no web-savvy voter is going to be swayed purely by the fact that a candidate has managed to embed a grainy YouTube clip on their site. Judging by the YouTube efforts of candidates to date, it seems more likely that they’re opening themselves up to derision from web-savvy voters rather than winning them over. Candidates should be looking to enhance their core messages with a certain amount of online enagement, but shouldn’t expect that votes will be won purely on displays on technological mastery.
In light of all of the above, I have decided it would be a useful public service to identify instances of hyperbole on this issue as I encounter them. Any articles I discover will be linked here with the tag “Hypewatch”, and I would encourage anyone who wants to contribute to this effort to use the same tag. I’m not suggesting that everything so tagged is completely over-the-top, just that it contains predictions which have yet to be tested in the white heat of an election campaign. In this way we can return to the issue after the election and assess which predictions held true, and which turned out to be, well, premature.