WATCHING POLITICS IN CYBERSPACE
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
"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
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.
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.
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
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.