Web 2.0 and the Political Process

Posted Tuesday November 25, 2008 by John Gunders in |

The has been a lot of discussion about the role of social networking in the recent US elections, as well as in the 2007 Australian Federal election. Sometime Memes commenter Barry Saunders looked at Obama’s online strategy and its implications for the Australian political landscape in a recent article for ABC Online:

However, as we watch Kevin Rudd getting back on the bandwagon and the political fallout of Obama’s win in the USA, we can take comfort that early adopters are giving the political process a boot up the proverbial, and thanks to Obama, nerds are hot. (“Fireside chats in the 21st century”, ABC Online)

Now I don’t disagree with Barry, but the article uses a rhetoric that is increasingly popular in recent times, and is perhaps best marked by the phrase “the first internet election”. This has been used to describe the US presidential election and the 2007 Australian federal election, although technically the honour should probably go to Eastern Ontario voters, who back in 2003, participated in “what is being called the first all-electronic election of North America” by registering their votes by phone, or on the internet. The argument is that the diversity and speed of online media has lead to a greater scrutiny of—or at least, better access to—the political process. The New York Times puts it this way:

Many of the media outlets influencing the 2008 election simply were not around in 2004. YouTube did not exist, and Facebook barely reached beyond the Ivy League. There was no Huffington Post to encourage citizen reporters, so Mr. Obama’s comment about voters clinging to guns or religion may have passed unnoticed. These sites and countless others have redefined how many Americans get their political news. (NYT, 3 November 2008)

Fair enough. But some commentators go further and claim that this access and prominence has somehow led to a further democratisation of the political process.

The political conversation in the 2008 presidential election is driven largely by blogs and microblogs. Online democratization has blown to bits and bytes the command-and-control approach that campaigns used to take to communication. Mainstream media reporters now blog throughout the day in an effort to compete with the constant, virtual news cycle. (Mark McKinnon, “Twitter’s Role in Digital Democracy”, Internet Evolution)

Pioneering use of Web 2.0 and social networking technologies by the president-elect’s campaign has seemingly transformed politics, and could influence government as well. (Mitch Wagner, InformationWeek, 5 November 2008)

I think this is another increasingly familiar case of excitement for new media overtaking a sober critical analysis of what is actually going on. Now I love Twitter, I think that the way the progressive side of politics—and yes, eventually the conservative side as well—managed to mobilise support through this application was really clever (KevinPM currently has 2,506 followers on Twitter; Barack Obama has 136,432). While we are still to see media analysis of the effect of Facebook and MySpace on the elections move beyond the “I’ve got more friends than you” level, these platforms certainly increased access to the information, and provided forums for discussion. The campaign organisers have managed to tap into a pre-existing community who are highly connected and tech-savvy, and used them as volunteers to spread the message. This might be faster and more efficient than letterboxing, but it’s not that much different from traditional campaigning strategies: just swap the soapbox or the community-hall stage for YouTube, and you increase the audience exponentially, but the message is still the same. What I wonder about is what real effect this has on the political process itself, let alone the impact on policy.

The “NoCleanFeed” campaign running on Twitter and elsewhere seems not to be letting up, and the ferocity of the reaction seems to have taken the Australian Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, rather by surprise:

Not only does everyone know that the Internet isn’t frightening or uncontrollable; not only do the population’s own experiences clash with the Minister’s hysterical allusions to unrestricted access to child pornography; but, much to the Minister’s apparent astonishment, he doesn’t even have the loudest voice anymore. (Mark Newton, “The perplexing Internet debate”, Online Opinion)

But despite the traction the online campaign has made, there is still no clear sign of the government backing down. If Conroy is hoping to wait out the media cycle he might be in for another surprise, but to date I’m not aware of any online campaign that has affected policy in any significant way. In spite of the best efforts of GetUp!, their “achievements” page still lists most campaigns as ongoing.

There is an initiative in the US that really interests me. I don’t know what sorts of outcomes it will produce, but as far as I know this is a pretty unique application. It’s called White House 2, and is a network of over 3,000 members (at the time of writing) who “endorse” or “oppose” priorities suggested by the group, which are then rated by popularity. There is some discussion of the topics, and they are related to policy initiatives promised by the Obama campaign. Again, there is no clear indication as to whether this will have any influence over policy, but what the last year has shown is that politicians are unwise to ignore the implications of Web 2.0 and the increased access and communicatibility of online information.

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