Campaigning in cyberspace

Becky Hogge
23 April 2007

As the 3 May 2007 local-government elections in Britain draw near, temperatures aren't running quite as high on this side of the channel as they have been in France. Nevertheless, on 18 April, I found myself squeezed into the back row of a packed lecture theatre in a parliamentary office building in London. I had been invited to find out, courtesy of an event hosted by the Hansard Society - an independent organisation that promotes effective parliamentary democracy - how the internet influenced Britain's 2005 general elections.

On the whole, I left uninspired. Derek Wyatt, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group (APIG), ran the audience through a mixture of satirical and heartfelt attempts to influence politics through the World Wide Web. They included the United States senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's excruciating "conversation", the HillCast, as well as the simple Technorati and Google Maps hack employed by French presidential contender Ségolène Royal's webmaster - which so impressed Wyatt that he was moved to pronounce the site a "MySpace for politics".

Then politics professor John Curtice's baffling array of statistics - massaged out, in part, from several years' worth of answers to the British Social Attitudes Survey - did nothing to help me answer the question posed by the event. The way Curtice, of the University of Strathclyde, approached it - matching internet penetration with attitudes to politicians over a number of years - rendered it about as incisive as asking how microwave ovens affect general elections.

The exception to the evening's proceedings was Steve Webb. In employing new communications technologies - first email, then SMS and, most recently, Facebook - to get closer to his parliamentary constituents, Webb learned a crucial lesson: people don't actually want their politicians to be political. Rather than aiming to capitalise on the goodwill he had built up in four years of personally intervening in disputes affecting his constituents by spamming his previous correspondents with party rhetoric, Webb let his mail servers lie fallow in the run-up to 2005. The result? Not only was he re-elected, but his constituency was in the top ten for voter turnout.

Formerly openDemocracy's technology editor, Becky Hogge is executive director of the Open Rights Group. Her writing on music, technology and intellectual property law has been published in several British and international publications, including the UK Guardian, Index on Censorship and Dazed and Confused. She blogs here

Read Becky's "Virtual Reality" column on openDemocracy here

The mistake most politicians make when they approach the new communications opportunities offered by the internet is a simple, but fatal, one: they do exactly the same thing online as they would do offline. Despite election-turnout figures that (in some areas) are so low as to throw the very legitimacy of elected representatives into question, and despite surveys that show that politicians are almost as distrusted as journalists, politicians seem to believe they are doing okay just as they are.

The leader of Britain's opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, made a video of himself washing dishes in his London kitchen to introduce the video and blog site he calls Webcameron. And the Labour party launched Labourvision, a YouTube channel that is a mixture of hero worship of prime minister Tony Blair and his likely successor, Gordon Brown, plus advertisements reminding Welsh voters that it was the Conservatives who shut the coal mines.

Stephen Coleman, formerly of the Hansard Society and now professor of political communication at the University of Leeds, put it best when he observed: "Politicians used to put out leaflets with pictures of their family and pet dog and copies of their lousy speeches, and it would be enough. Unfortunately, many politicians now just create a website with pictures of their family and pet dog and their lousy speeches, but it is not good enough."

The real deal

It is not as if the examples of how it should be done are not out there. I don't suppose I shall ever tire of promoting the work of the British civic hackers MySociety. Their projects include WriteToThem.com, which puts people in touch with their elected representatives in two clicks of a mouse, and TheyWorkForYou.com, an accessible version of the parliamentary record which (among other things) emails subscribers each time their parliamentary representative speaks in the House of Commons.

What makes the MySociety sites so successful is that it positively exploits the best features of the new communications environment. The websites are simply designed, and are efficiently maintained and updated. They take advantage of the fact that websites can be powered by the dual forces of well-structured data and the ability of individual users to tailor how they view that data, with such tools as search, email and RSS. MySociety does not package it sites to deliver a particular message -- except, perhaps, that information that sheds light on the political process is a good thing.

But as the country prepares itself for another round of local elections, and, beyond that, for a general election without Tony Blair, members of parliament are travelling in the opposite direction to these internet pioneers. In March 2007, a consultation on amendments to the fledgling freedom of information (FoI) act was extended until June. Amendments put forth recommend that the cost of granting individual FoI requests be capped at £600 ($1,200), including administrative costs, and that organisations such as newspapers and NGOs be granted a limited number of requests in a given time period.

The justification given is that FoI requests are frequently used by the news media, rather than ordinary citizens, and that, as Lord Falconer, secretary of state for constitutional affairs, puts it: "Freedom of information provides the right to know, not the right to tell." Yet the money still flows freely to the communications practices of the last century, which rely on such outmoded and unpopular ideas as public image and spin. In fact, each member of parliament has just had his or her "communications" budget increased by £10,000.

The crucial thing here is not just what's effective, or what makes more use of a technology that the majority of legislators (and many of their constituents) are not yet comfortable using. The age of digital communications brings with it a trade-off between the particular brand of freedom of speech facilitated by the internet and the privacy of every person plugged into it. That trade-off occurs either willingly, through blogging and social networking, or unwillingly, through the many transaction records that shed light on people's lives, and which are stored and mined by powerful public and private interests.

For this trade-off to be anything like progress, rather than repression, it must be made by everybody. Negotiating it becomes meaningless if those in power use that power in order to opt out.

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