There was a piece in the Sun Herald last weekend suggesting the Liberal Party is “preparing a major internet blitz to reinvigorate itself”. The article contained a juvenile little snark from an unnamed Liberal Party source suggesting that “Christopher Pyne, Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey were the only senior former Howard government ministers who could use a computer.”
(disclosure: Christopher Pyne is my Facebook friend, while the other two are not (as yet)) (further disclosure: there is a forest of other Liberal MPs who also have Facebook profiles, so someone must be turning on their computers for them)
Using the internet to obtain and engage with party members is a worthwhle approach, although on its own it won’t have much effect on political support. However, as political commentator Rachel Hills notes, the last election wasn’t lost (or won) online. Edgar Crook, Senior Librarian in the Web Archiving Section at the National Library of Australia, did quite a good paper looking specifically at how political parties used the internet in the 2007 election. It can be found at this link (pdf file).
The paper included a section on the relatively new use (by politicians) of social networking sites, and contained the observation that
successful social networking involves giving over something of your self, sharing interests and activities. Thus a candidate who was prepared to converse, take quizzes, play scrabble games and other quotidian activities on Facebook, was far more likely to develop friendships which could translate into votes. The Democrats and to a lesser extent the Greens, who fielded a number of younger candidates, demonstrated this attitude most ably. Andrew Bartlett, the Democrat Senator, who has been blogging for a number of years, did not have as many friends as Howard or Rudd on MySpace or Facebook, but it would be safe to assume that each friend that he made over the election, could actually be one in real life.
Looking at some of the people I’ve got as my ‘friends’ on Facebook and MySpace, I’m not so sure how safe that assumption is – but then given how few friends I have left in real life after 18 years working in politics, I probably can’t afford to be too picky. (further disclosure: Edgar Crook is also a Facebook friend of mine, although he did write his paper before I whupped his ass playing chess on Facebook – not that I can do these things so easily any more, as the Department of the Senate has just put in place internet filtering which stops Senators and their staff from being able to play Scrabulous (a Facebook version of Scrabble) and Chess while using the parliamentary network.)
In any case, real friends or not, as Edgar Crook rather bluntly notes
A strong Internet election campaign can certainly be said to have helped the Labor party and a weak campaign damaged the Liberals, however as Andrew Bartlett’s Senate loss demonstrates, Internet popularity does not yet make or break elections.
I’m mostly interested in political usages of the internet to greater expand genuine debate and public engagement with politics and issues, but understandbly the major parties are so far using it mainly as an extension of their campaigning and marketing.
Whilst anything which connects politicians more directly with people, even in fairly shallow ways, is probably better than nothing, the real opportunities for internet usage to significantly broaden political debate and engagement will not come from politicians but from the wider community – from niche specialists to general activists to the general public.
For more on that side of the electoral and political process, this post by Kim at Larvatus Prodeo links to a paper by Axel Bruns of QUT on “citizen journalism in the 2007 federal election.” For some details on the use and impact of blogs and the internet by politicians and parties in Malaysia, see my following post.