DOES THE REVOLUTION BEGIN HERE?
HOW THE INTERNET MAY (OR MAY NOT) CHANGE POLITICAL COMMUNICATION
2.6 Politicians online: use and impacts
In a public choice model, political leaders are thought to make
a difference to election results essentially through two key activities:
finding out what most voters want, and then 'presenting a case'
which delivers on these preferences.1
Modern politicians have long sought means to present
their case directly to the electorate, unfettered by journalistic
filtration. Notably, former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, frustrated
by what he perceived as a manipulative press corps that slanted
the news through its lines of questioning, opened press conferences
to television cameras, and by extension to individual voters.
Furious with the news media, he pressed his staff
for both a better means of controlling the national agenda and
getting his words before the public without journalistic filtration.2
Eisenhower, who held communicating with the people
as a basic principle of leadership, was an ardent supporter of press
freedom, but also believed reporters had no claim to a monopoly
on political information.
"To hell with slanted reporters," [press
secretary James] Hagerty wrote in his diary on March 4. "We'll
go directly to the people who can hear exactly what [the] president
said without reading warped and slanted stories."3
At first glance it would seem politicians have been
given an unequaled opportunity to communicate directly with constituents
via e-mail and Web sites. In fact all Canadian federal political
parties have Web sites, as do many Members of Parliament. All government
departments now offer information online as does Parliament, which
provides extensive information on legislation, committees, and transcripts
of the proceedings of the House of Commons and Senate. The vast
quantity of information at these official sites allows anyone with
a personal computer and modem to closely monitor legislative activity.
Similar resources are also available online in the
United States. According to Owen, Davis and Strickler (1999) the
effect of this access to information in the United States is "potentially
revolutionary for followers of legislation"4 because
formerly only lobbying firms and interest groups had the resources
to follow legislation so closely.
However, precisely because of the overwhelming volume
of this very information available online, the rate of return for
most rational individuals seeking information from these online
sources is relatively low. Much of the information online is technical,
procedural and bureaucratic. In reality, "much of the 'information'
available to voters about party policy stances is generated adversarially,
by rival parties trying to pull holes in each other's positions,
and being forced to respond to opposition onslaughts."5
Anecdotally, the Internet may even be emerging as
a forum for political party loyalists to smear opponents of their
candidate and gain backdoor entry into the mainstream press. For
example, in the recent race for the leadership of the Canadian Reform
Conservative Alliance Party, the pro-life special interest group
Campaign Life Coalition published reports that members of one leadership
contender's campaign team were homosexual. The traditional media
likely would not have published this material on their own initiative,
but did so inadvertently in reporting on the controversial Web site.
Owen and Davis hypothesized that since Congress
members have complete control of the political information on their
Web sites, they would take advantage of every opportunity to convey
their accomplishments and interests to constituents. However, their
study of congressional Web sites actually showed Congress members'
sites are used primarily as a form of advertising.
By using their Web sites to present themselves as
attractive, approachable, and helpful public servants, members
of Congress effectively use the Internet to advertise themselves.6
The study also found that Congress members were
reluctant to use their Web sites for providing more substantive
political information such as policy positions or for claiming credit
for government accomplishments. Members' sites generally did not
discuss legislation, even that which they sponsored.7
The failure of candidates to capitalize on the new
technologies available to them in 1996 was further underscored in
a study by Dulio, Goff and Thurber (1999), who discovered that Internet
search engines often did not return a candidate's own Web site among
the top search results.8 For example, by not registering
their own name as a keyword with search engines, a candidate would
clearly have missed any opportunity for increased exposure the Internet
may have afforded.
Anecdotally, it appears the situation may not have
changed much since 1996. Commenting on the Hillary Clinton campaign
for the United States Senate, journalist Ben White noted that "as
the Web sprawls out beyond 1 billion pages, with no friendly librarian
to keep track of them all, the search engine issue is more than
an academic issue for campaigns."9
A study of Internet use in British politics also
supports the finding that political parties have so far failed to
capitalize on the potential of the Internet. Gibson and Ward (1998)
found that parties believe traditional media, such as radio, television,
newspapers and direct mail are far more important avenues of providing
political information to individual voters.10
However, far from dismissing the Internet as a political
medium, the authors suggest the Internet was immature at the time
of the study and its role in disseminating political information
is likely to increase in importance over time.
Given the speed of developments during the last
five years ... it is not unreasonable to assume that over the
next decade party communication and campaigning on the Internet
will have moved from the fringe toward the mainstream. Such developments,
on the basis of the findings from this investigation, could carry
significant consequences for the current distribution of power
both within and between political parties.11
In fact, above all other actors in the political
system, politicians may be the least likely to forego the consensus
building role of the traditional mass media. It is they alone who
face the political imperative of uniting a majority of voters around
a handful of central issues. As political advertising attests, politicians
seek above all else to avoid alienating voting groups based on a
marginal or divisive issues.
In a public choice model, this explains why "most
politicians collude to exclude racist views, religious bigotry or
persecution of unpopular minorities from inclusion in party competition;
for although 'following the crowd' in this way wins temporary votes,
it also incorporates potent sources of instability into liberal
As the Internet matures, it seems it may increasingly
become an outlet for even more extreme political discourse than
can be found in the traditional mass media. As PoliticsOnline.com
editor Andy Brack recently noted, "when the political Internet
was in its nascent stage, do-gooders and political Dudley Do-Rights
of the world touted the medium as a savior that would solve all
sorts of problems. With the [year 2000] election season on us, it's
clear that the medium has grown up. Not only are there hundreds
of parody sites, there are some not-so-nice things going on online."13
In the Canadian context political attack and spoof
sites are emerging. For example, the Canadian Alliance party posted
an attack page on their official Web site personally attacking a
political pundit from another party. The page called Warren's
Web was subsequently modified to remove alleged slanderous materia
under threat of legal action.
Part of the appeal of the Internet is a degree of
anonymity. Material posted on a site called Oddballs
suggests that Prime Minister Jean Chretien is a drunk.
1. Dunleavy, 1991, p. 113.
2. Allen, 1993, p. 18.
3. Allen, 1993, p. 20.
4. Owen, Davis and Strickler, 1999, p. 13.
5. Dunleavy, 1991, p. 113.
6. Owen, Davis and Strickler, 1999, p. 25.
7. Owen, Davis and Strickler, 1999, p. 25.
8. Dulio, Goff and Thurber, 1999, p. 54.
9. White, Slate, June 5, 2000.
10. Gibson and Ward, 1998, p. 33.
11. Gibson and Ward, 1998, p. 33.
12. Dunleavy and O'Leary, 1987, p. 155.