Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Solution or Smokescreen?

Attended an interesting event on Tuesday organised by the Hansard Society, the purpose of which was to discuss the online campaign and models of its application to politics in terms of it offering a solution to questions of engagement, interest and involvement or was a smokescreen that, in my interpretation, makes parties and MPs appear to want to engage more but without actually doing so. The presenters were LibDem Head of Innovations and Editor of LibDem Voice Mark Pack, Conservative Home Editor Jonathan Isaby and Labourlist creator Derek Draper. It was not hugely insightful, but there were some gems that grabbed my interest and so I thought I would share them. This is what I took away from the event and not designed to be a definitive account in anyway - so no "cybershit" ( a term introduced to proceedings by Draper) if you disagree.

Firstly the answer to the overall question is it is neither! The Internet provides an additional method for communicating to certain audiences, and perhaps an optimum route to some audiences, but is not a solution to the wider problems identified with political engagement. However this may change, so hence it is not simply a too for perception management. Both Draper and Isaby hinted at a restructuring of the membership model that may be weaker but learned from foot in the door persuasion techniques - asking for small actions from joining a Facebook fan group up to working as an activist but with various level of exit points. However for Pack and Draper it appeared that the most powerful objective for using online communication tools was to feed the news agenda and that from this function there could be a reshaping of politics, possibly as the public begin to engage with strong and engaging party and MP presences across different parts of the WWW. Draper, however, went further to suggest that in a close contest a few hundred votes in a dozen seats could be decisive, hence it could be argued that an engaging presence, a persuasive message, third-party (voter) promotion, endorsement and amplification and highly targeted strategies of mobilisation then there could be an argument that it was 'the web wot won it'! Thus we may see a marginal seat strategy that employs the Internet far more ruthlessly at a local level than simply one national strategy as has been seen previously.

Much of this sounded a little Obama-esque, and a question posed by a representative of Hustings (on whose website all the presentations can be watched) asked if this 'may look like your dad dancing at a wedding'. Obama as an example was played down, and parties seem to recognise that it was the right candidate with the right message that was influential not his skills to adapt to Web 2.0. However it is clear that lessons have been learned and there will be techniques that worked for Obama that will be adapted to a UK context. YouTube may surpass television as a way of getting videos viewed for example (mine based on a comment of Ivor Gaber's in the queue to get in. But the local aspect is seen as important. Obama allowed social networking within his website via the area, this put supporters in touch with one another. Isaby suggested a similar technique that may be appropriate for the UK. Candidates should use Facebook, but not just as self-promotion tools but to identify active groups within an area and identify with their campaigns - perhaps this will surpass the old technique of reading the local newspaper or be a useful supplement.

Another interesting gem is the notion of the online active public being an elite. But Mark Pack made the interesting point that this is actually fairly open compared to many other ways in which the public can participate in politics. Draper agreed, reinforcing this by noting how few people attend any political event, yet still more may do so online. A fact sadly, I heard that one candidate selection meeting was attended by five people!

So overall food for thought, lots of titbits despite the sense that no-one wanted to reveal too many aces despite the fact that they are all probably the same cards. Two final things on this, innovation is driven by election failure, so whatever happens in online campaigning it will be determined by the goal of electioneering! Secondly, and more trivially, what ever some people have claimed Derek Draper publicly admits he does not have a monopoly of wisdom!

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