1.1 Watching Politics in Cyberspace

Submitted by:
A.M. Burton

Submitted to:
School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada),

in part completion of the requirements for the

Master of Journalism

September 2000

:: Research Base



Welcome to the Internet age in political communication.

From smart-bomb e-mails targeted at journalists covering candidate debates to online fundraising, membership recruitment drives and sending out marching orders to grassroots organizers, political parties are waking up to the potential of new communication technologies like the Internet and electronic mail as campaign tools.

Back in March 2000, the day after grassroots Reformers morphed into Canada's new right-wing coalition, the Canadian Alliance, party organizers held a news conference to launch a flashy new Web site. Click on any page of the site and you are asked to join the party and donate money. Click on any other page and you will be asked again.

"If you're not concentrating on these things at the moment and getting them ready now for the next election, you can eat our dust ... bye bye," Devin Baines, the party's Webmaster, said at the time.

In some respects other federal parties are already eating Canadian Alliance dust. The Canadian Alliance party recruits members and volunteers online and is the only federal political party currently raising money online, something the Reform party had been doing for five years previous to the birth of the new party.

This is significant.

Online credit-card donations almost proved revolutionary in this spring's US presidential primaries. Senator John McCain's campaign team claimed to have raised an astonishing $2.5 million in Web donations and signed up 40,000 new volunteers online in the two weeks following his victory in the New Hampshire primary.

Increasingly, new communication technologies are being used as tools in political media campaigns.

The Reform party had long been using the Internet for targeted communications campaigns against the government, snatching up catchy Internet domain names like Senate-Reform.org to spread the gospel on - what else? - Senate reform. The party promoted their campaign for tax cuts at a site called GiveMeABreak.org and posted its commentary on the 2000 federal budget at NoBreakTaxBreak.com.

In the broader view, those who relay most political information from politicians to voters - journalists - are also adapting to the new online environment.

During the Canadian Alliance leadership race, several significant events broke as news stories that actually resulted from online activity. For example, gay campaign team members for candidate Tom Long were "outed" online by a Christian special interest group that endorsed pro-life candidate Stockwell Day. This was widely reported in the mainstream media.

But while the new Canadian Alliance may be cutting edge by Canadian standards, even they are playing catch-up to the United States.

"Political Webmasters will soon have as much to do with elections as pollsters and media advisers," says John Chambers, president of Cisco Systems Inc., an Internet networking company.

Chambers made this bold prediction in early 2000 at a symposium on online voting organized by the venerable Washington DC think-tank, The Brookings Institution.

The discussion coincided with a series of major online voting experiments in the US, including an online Republican primary straw poll in Alaska and binding Internet voting in the Arizona Democratic primary.

While Chambers prediction is clearly materializing, it may not be the Webmaster per say, but those political assistants who master all new communications technologies and harness their aggregate power for a variety of purposes who become the new gurus.

Imagine campaigns in a world of wireless remote communication, where Web site can be targeted to both constituents and special interest groups, political staffers supply journalists with "facts" about opponents by e-mail in the heat of candidate debates, and the campaign trail, party workers stay on top of the latest headlines and campaign activity by wireless Internet and e-mail.

While the potential of electronic politicking is being maximized, we may also soon witness some of the more nuts and bolts aspects of the democratic process move online.

For starters, US soldiers stationed abroad will be voting online in the November 2000 presidential election.

Here in Canada, Elections Canada has been weighing the pros and cons of introducing new technologies into the voting process since just after the 1997 federal election.

Of course, it's not as simple as plunking in a new Web site and telling Canadians to log-on to vote.

Elections Canada hired the investment and accounting firm KPMG to study how new technology could be integrated in the voting process.

KPMG concluded Canadians are most amenable to three kinds of new technology for voting - bank-machine style electronic kiosks, the telephone and the Internet.

The study, called Technology and the Voting Process, also concluded, however, that it is in no way a given that Canadians would trust new technologies to preserve the integrity of the voting process.

But politicking and e-democracy are only part of the story. The Internet is also changing political news coverage.

Almost a half-century after Dwight Eisenhower's first televised presidential news conference, politicians are once again turning an opportunistic eye toward a new medium to spread their message.

And, as in Eisenhower's day, new technology may not only change how politicians communicate with the electorate, but also how politics is covered by the news media.

Almost without exception, daily newspapers and major broadcasters now post at least some of their news on Web sites. Some sites, such as TheGlobeandMail.com and CBC.ca, are updated throughout the day.

But traditional news sources, even when they are online, still offer only one perspective - their own. The nature of their business precludes them from offering the same breadth of coverage as is now possible on political news portals.

Political news portals don't report the news in the traditional sense. Instead, they practise what Microsoft's daily Web magazine Slate calls "meta-journalism," compiling hypertext links from various news sources that give readers an overview of all media coverage on a given subject, such as politics.

Some political news portals, such as Grassroots.com, SpeakOut.com, and Vote.com, actively promote the Internet as "an engine of public discourse," while translating political news coverage into increasingly lucrative and successful online news businesses.

The news portal may be the raison d'etre of a political Web site or just one small feature. For example, Politics.com has a news section, but is more noteworthy for political advertising and information on campaign financing.

In fact, online novelty abounds on US political news portals, many of which are run by Washington-based consulting companies.

PoliticalJunkie.com lets users search a database of who donated how much to which campaign, by zip code or last name. Know someone who is natural for elected office? Give them the hint with a "virtual campaign button" emblazoned with their name.

PoliticalInsider.com posts a political "news briefing" each morning. CampaignScoop.com also features morning and afternoon briefings as well as a search engine for searching news story headlines.

One of GoVote.com's biggest draws is an online survey to help voters find the candidate that best reflects their views, a feature so popular it repeatedly crashed the Web site when it was first introduced.

Other news portals, such as PoliticallyBlack.com, cater to specific constituencies. The self-described "official online source of black politics" features headlines and links focused on news about African-American issues.

So far there are no Canadian counterparts to these US Web sites. That is until now.

With the launch of Canada's Political Portal™ | PoliticsWatch.com™, I am offering into this exciting mix of cutting-edge political communication this research project on Canadian online political news, submitted to the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication to fulfill the requirements of the Master of Journalism program .

This Master's Research Project explores this new area of political journalism through quantitative and qualitative research - it is not a work of journalism in and of itself. This academic research base is intended to be used as the basis, the launching pad, of an innovative news business - one that is entirely online.

As Canada's Political Portal™, PoliticsWatch is firmly positioned at the forefront of Canadian online political news, offering meta-journalism to political news consumers and, resources permitting, original political news content from a new voice and perspective. In offering a compendium of online voter resources, PoliticsWatch also seeks to educate voters through primary sources, in addition to offering content filtered through a journalistic lens.

As Canadians wait with baited breath for Prime Minister Jean Chretien to call an election, PoliticsWatch stands ready to be part of Canadian Internet history.

While PoliticsWatch attempts to be at the forefront of a new phenomenon, the academic research base upon which it is built captures only a fleeting moment in time. As with every facet of emerging communications technologies, rapid obsolescence is expected.

next section

Research Base
Go direct:

Table of Contents

Section 1

Section 2

Section 3
Politics Watch Study

Section 4

Section 5


PoliticsWatch Home  |  News Services  Voter Resources  |  Research Base

© PoliticsWatch® 2004. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of PoliticsWatch content, 
including by framing, copying, linking or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of 
Public Interests Research and Communications Inc. (PIRCINC). PoliticsWatch is registered trademark of PIRCINC.
PoliticsWatch® | Canada's Political Portal™
85 Albert Street, Suite 1502, Ottawa ON K1P 6A4 |  phone: 613.232.0516
news@politicswatch.com  |  Terms of Service, Copyright, Trademarks, and Disclaimers Statement