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  • Leveraging the internet for elections


    by Sunny
    4th May, 2007 at 9:36 am    

    It is Local Election results day and there will be much discussion on television, print and online on how the parties did. And though political bloggers may occasionally be asked to provide their opinion they have largely been a side-show, incapable of anything substantial.

    Look across the pond however and we see that political blogs are not only talked about but are actually significant in many ways. Democrat supporters in particular are much more focused and organised online than their Republican counterparts for various reasons.

    The American liberal magazine New Republic published a very insightful article on this phenomena only a few days ago (via Gracchi who more throught-provoking commentary). Whether the ‘net-roots’ present a blessing or a curse for the Democrats remains to be seen.

    But these lines struck me in particul ar:

    Traditionally, to the extent that movements exist on the left, they have been dispersed among single-issue organizations-environmentalists, labor unions, pro-choice activists-that mobilize only when their own pet issues are on the agenda. This piecemeal structure leaves each component group fighting solo battles against a large and cohesive coalition. Also, since there are political issues that do not directly affect the single-issue groups, it leaves swaths of liberal territory unguarded.

    The netroots are scornful of single-issue liberal groups-or, really, any liberals at all who are not wholly dedicated to the cause of Democratic victory. As Stoller has written on MyDD, “To the extent that I have a political hero, it’s probably Grover Norquist, not Ralph Nader.” The netroots’ dream is of a liberal army of grassroots activists, pundits, policy wonks, and politicians all marching more or less in lockstep.

    Admittedly, I like the sound of that. A liberal should be feminist, an environmentalist and a pro-trade unionist in my opinion… but I digress.

    Now look at these numbers from the Obama campaign after the first round of funding was declared.

    * More than 50,000 donors gave $6.9 million online
    * Over 90% of online donations were in increments of $100 or less
    * About 50% of online donations were in increments of $25 or less
    * Over 4,000 grassroots volunteer groups founded on My.BarackObama.com
    * Over 9,000 blogs started, where people are chronicling their campaign experience
    * Over 50,000 profiles created by My.BarackObama.com members

    That is staggering. And not just the amount of money raised online, but the fact that Barack Obama has a My section on his website where supporters can get organised, link up with each other and discuss policy issues. Compare that with the lame YouTube videos that Labour and LibDems have finally gotten round to nervously putting up.

    Barack Obama has over 67,000 supporters on his Facebook profile. In comparison only Ming Campbell has a profile with apparently 1000 ‘friends’. You can’t even view his profile without adding him.

    The point of all this should be obvious. Not only are British politicians badly lagging behind the Americans in leveraging the internet for reaching voters, but that concerned voters, especially those of us who run and comment on political blogs, are doing a really bad job of organising ourselves online to get politicians listening.

    The Conservatives may be marginally more successful than progressives here with ConservativeHome as a rough sounding board for ideas but to be honest it does not even begin to reach the scale of the American Democratic effort, even if proportion is taken into account.

    It remains overwhelmingly Westminister circle obsessed, along with other gossip blogs such as Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes. Is the ordinary punter bothered? Well if they can’t be asked to vote, they certainly won’t be amused with daily jokes about the ‘Sith Institute’.

    My feeling is that if (liberal) British political blogs are to even survive as a viable force rather than simply an amusing fad for the national press, they have to get organised like the Democrats are doing in the States. They have to have a plan; a channel to direct their energies. Right now we’re just wasting some time. The battle hasn’t even begun.

    Update: Oh and I forgot to mention Tessa Jowell’s cringingly bad attempt at joining the (now defunct) debate on netiquette as another example of politicians trying to engage with the masses (thanks Ally). Tessa, if you’re reading this, please stick to government policy and how ordinary people can help shape it or provide their opinion on it. Please don’t try and ‘engage with the masses’ so superficially bad.


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    1. Election 2007 - Some Reflections

      [...] note: Good article from Sunny, giving us about one and a half cheers, and comparing the UK blogosphere - all sections [...]




    1. Robert — on 4th May, 2007 at 11:00 am  

      Without wishing to appear overly sychophantic - Isn’t that precisely what you’ve begun to do with NGN?

      This issue is, I think, one facet of the ongoing discussion about the health of UK democracy and political participation. The move from political parties to single-issue groups is a well cited example, and perhaps a reversal of this trend is what is required for true, participatory democracy to flourish. I am very taken with your assertion that A liberal should be feminist, an environmentalist and a pro-trade unionist and perhaps arguments like these should be made more often.

      My feeling is that the USA has more robust culture of political participation, by which I mean that being politically active is more acceptable. Over here, if you happen to be able to cite facts or political issues in some depth (actually not so hard if you follow the blogs I find) then you come across as a bit of a geek. Or that just me!?

    2. Leon — on 4th May, 2007 at 11:22 am  

      Heh and this from the guy who initially poo poo’d any involvment in Facebook.:P

      Seriously though, great post Sunny, and obviously I agree with much of it. We are always a few years behind the US with most things so it makes sense that we are with this. That said I’m fairly certain the next General Election will see a surge in social media/networking coverage and influence.

      My feeling is that the USA has more robust culture of political participation, by which I mean that being politically active is more acceptable. Over here, if you happen to be able to cite facts or political issues in some depth (actually not so hard if you follow the blogs I find) then you come across as a bit of a geek. Or that just me!?

      Good point. Although I find it isn’t a geek you look like but someone who is quite serious or can’t be argued with because they ‘know their stuff’…

    3. Anas — on 4th May, 2007 at 11:56 am  

      You’re so damn London-, England-centric, you couldn’t bring yourself to mention the Scottish Elections even tho they could have potentially momentous political implications.

    4. Sunny — on 4th May, 2007 at 2:57 pm  

      Anas, who cares about the Scottish?? (j/k Clairwil, don’t kill me!)

      Robert, well yes… PP has helped me immensely to develop ideas and as a sounding board for ‘real-world projects’ so to speak. But I don’t think I’m leveraging the net and PP fully. A lot more could be done.

      But if we think about the necessary development and consolidation of the progressive liberal movement in the UK… that is where the big battle needs to be fought. NGN is part of that but not the whole picture.

      That said I’m fairly certain the next General Election will see a surge in social media/networking coverage and influence.

      To be honest I don’t, unless people really get their act together. I think the British blogosphere has actually declined in the last year or so in numbers and vitality…

    5. Leon — on 4th May, 2007 at 3:20 pm  

      To be honest I don’t, unless people really get their act together.

      I do because once people recognise the opportunity involved it will encourage activity. All three main parties will have supporters using it to attack each other which mean people like us have a better position because we can provide a good, integrity based overview. I really think a non partisan, group blog approach is crucial to offset the tedium and negativity they will provoke.

      I think the slight change in Labour bloggers getting more active and supporting each other, in the face of a Tory blogger ‘popularity’, is telling and gives an indication of things to come.

      I think the British blogosphere has actually declined in the last year or so in numbers and vitality…

      To be honest I really don’t know what to make of this, how can you tell? What criteria are you basing vitality on, what do you mean by declined (numbers, activity, numbers of daily post, traffic etc) where’s the data? Sorry to be forensic but assertions need to be clarified…

    6. ally — on 4th May, 2007 at 4:54 pm  

      Anyone who saw or participated in Tessa Jowell’s exruciating ‘online debate’ on GU Talk the other day will realise that some of our politicians might be better keeping their online presence to a minimum.

      Or at the very least get a savvy office sockpuppet to do it for them.

    7. Sunny — on 4th May, 2007 at 5:20 pm  

      All three main parties will have supporters using it to attack each other which mean people like us have a better position because we can provide a good, integrity based overview.

      But how? I don’t believe providing an overview is enough. Representing a non-partisan view can also be done from within the fold, so to speak. I identify as a liberal for example, but that doesn’t mean I don’t criticise other liberals.

      My point is that criticism aside, we need projects that will actually help influence elections and force the debate into a particular direction.

      I think the slight change in Labour bloggers getting more active and supporting each other, in the face of a Tory blogger ‘popularity’, is telling and gives an indication of things to come.

      Could be… but it has become more about slinging mud at each other rather than forging a plan on what needs to be done.

      What criteria are you basing vitality on, what do you mean by declined (numbers, activity, numbers of daily post, traffic etc) where’s the data?

      Just seen a lot of blogs go under… and the technorati ratings for all the big leftie blogs have declined… while on the right only Iain Dale’s and Guido’s have expanded (but that is thanks to the growing media attention they get).

    8. Anas — on 4th May, 2007 at 8:58 pm  

      Looks like the SNP have just kicked Labour’s ass out BY ONE VOTE (man that’s sweet!)! YAY!!!!!!!!

    9. Anas — on 4th May, 2007 at 9:20 pm  

      BTW, Sunny, you’re slightly nuts if you think New Republic is liberal, or else liberal means something completely different to what I think it does.

    10. soru — on 4th May, 2007 at 9:30 pm  

      In US politics, there is a simple, definable and doable thing a large number of people want a great deal: a president who is not Bush, or Bush III.

      If you did a survey ‘would you give up your next major purchase of a household item or luxury good in order to achieve that’, you’d get a decent number of takers. You might even get some for the same question with ‘firstborn child’.

      There really isn’t a direct equivalent to that in the UK: people who hate Blair tend to hate Cameron and Ming more or less as much. Only the ConservativeHome lot really have any idea of something specific and definable they want badly enough to work on, and ‘Cameron for PM’ is hardly a cause to set yourself on fire for.

      Other than that, you just get hobbyists, the far left (but I repeat myself), and those people who make a habit of worrying, with varying degress of paranoia, about one or more of the Islamists, the BNP and the government.

      Probably the best chance of some kind of net-populist movement would be a cause like electoral reform. If you don’t have anything you feel inspired to care about, change the system so it throws up something you do.

    11. douglas clark — on 4th May, 2007 at 9:38 pm  

      Sunny,

      Kind of contrarywise to Robert up at 1. Can I ask you a serious question? Where is NGN going? What is happening? I, along with a lot of other people bought into it. It seems to me - still - to make a lot of sense. But the NGN website seems stuck in time, there is no apparent momentum. No developments. No critique or analysis.

      If you do have plans perhaps you could share them with us.

    12. ZinZin — on 4th May, 2007 at 9:46 pm  

      Terrywatch has failed, as for those democrat bloggers across the pond lets wait until 2008 before declaring them a success.

    13. Anas — on 4th May, 2007 at 9:51 pm  

      Sorry I got a bit too excited, that should have been BY ONE SEAT!!!!

    14. Clairwil — on 4th May, 2007 at 10:20 pm  

      Zin Zin,
      Wash your mouth out! I’m not finished with that moron yet.

      Anas,
      Is it really happening? I’d like to have seen Labour take an even bigger beating but this isn’t bad but what do you reckon will happen next? No one’s able to govern without a coalition.

    15. ZinZin — on 4th May, 2007 at 10:27 pm  

      What was the point of Terrywatch? I thought its aim was to ensure TKmax’s defeat. Its failed, still Rayleen Kelly lost.

    16. douglas clark — on 4th May, 2007 at 11:06 pm  

      Anas, Clairwill,

      Did you spot this dreadful, but strangely effecting piece of kitsch?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSkY8Y68P5I

      Respect to Conor Foley. And wait to the very end.

    17. Sunny — on 4th May, 2007 at 11:24 pm  

      My Scottish brothas and sistas… I’m trying to engineer an online political revolution here and you folks are talking about Scotland. Really, only the Scottish care about Scotland. I have my own country called London.

    18. Anas — on 5th May, 2007 at 1:10 am  

      I was watching some of the results last night with a bunch of SNP members, which was fun. They weren’t doing as well as the polls had seemed to say, so it looked precarious. But I have to say Salmond has looked like first minister in waiting from the start. And McConnell, well he looks like the dweeb he always has. I’m sorry Tommy Sheridan didn’t get re-elected, tho.

      As for Sunny, it’s just sour grapes that for once Scotland is the focus of everyone’s attention and not London. He also seems under the misapprehension that the New Republic is liberal, and Barack Obama is a progressive.

    19. Anna Churchill — on 6th May, 2007 at 9:31 pm  

      Interesting to note from the UK the US is seen as ahead in using the internet to advance an ideological agenda or to raise awareness and create constructive action…

      1. As an American who was happily living in UK for several years and during the 2004 presidential election I would like to remind any admiring Brit that despite one of the most blatant of criminal conspiracy’s on the planet-the internet failed to rally anyone to effectively do anything.

      2. Hurricane Katrina. The whole world watched in horror as not a bottle of water was dropped for days as thousands suffered. The internet did rally an uprising or coup to overthrow a government so rancid with stupidity and venality-a president who appoints an incompetent imbecile with no relevant experience as head of FEMA-this incident crossed party politics-everyone can be affected by this kind of criminal mismanagement…but did the population take to the streets? Any normal citizenry would have enacted a coup after Katrina.

      In America, we have nothing like your BBC and Guardian interactive websites. Not one of our major broadsheets even has a dedicated Environmental section.

      MoveOn.orgs “emergency” response to McCain’s Dr.Strangelove’s antics resulted in a pathetic, defensive, earnest little ad declaring: “we can’t have any more reckless politicians!” “Reckless?” Thats like saying Hitler was a “naughty boy”.

      Americans are inert, insane, and collectively insensible with few exceptions.

      Look at our news websites compared to yours.

      The UK is smaller and has the critical issues debated on mainstream TV, print media and websites.

      Information here is fractured and fragmented.

      Majority of people here barely have a clue about Global Warming and many think its a hoax. The Green movement is more about market positioning that about creating a coalition with a targeted agenda and plan.

      We have no infrastructure that will allow us to solve
      serious problems that demand teamwork. As individuals we are great at acting-but when it comes to politics-to getting information and debate out into the general population on a regular basis-this does not exist.

      Every country in the world has the corner news agent with papers in several languages with several points of view. Most of America has the choice of the local rag and Fox or CNN. So, if they go onto the internet what type of sites do you think they plug into? Just look at the type of rhetoric from Americans that typically shows up in the comments in response to an essay like Terry Jones’ Swiftian response to Mc Cain’s lunacy?

      The American collective is in thrall to its fantasy of the myth of America. The few intelligent squibs on the internet represent a tiny, tiny percentage of what people generally think or express here.

      The other day a friend bumped into someone who had just applied for a creative job at FOX. This person was asked if they were a Republican or a Democrat! This is illegal. One would think this would be a cause celebre-a major lawsuit-this would have been revealed before.

      But nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

      Don’t be fooled.

      Don’t be fooled.

      True

    20. Leon — on 8th May, 2007 at 12:02 pm  

      Sunny, I will get back to the points raised above, work is overflowing today…

    21. Sunny — on 8th May, 2007 at 1:32 pm  

      No worries, in fact I want to write something more solid on this too.

      Douglas - whoops, I didn’t see that question until now. Lots happening with NGN but I can’t talk about it unless its off the ground.

      The main point is that I don’t want to start a project unless its going to make a difference… didn’t really want to focus my energies on organising events or petitions or talks or filling out forms because that is time consuming. Better instead to plan something more substantial. Hopefully in the coming weeks I’ll have the chance to explain.

      Partly the problem is that the run-up to NGN’s launch was so time consuming that I didn’t have much time to plan for ahead.

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