My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, Ottawa Citizen version, homepage version) assess the use of the Internet in the last election. Business increasingly recognizes the need for an Internet strategy that engages current and prospective customers. In the just-concluded national election, many analysts anticipated an "Internet election" with sophisticated websites, active blogging, YouTube videos, Facebook groups, and rapid-fire Twitter postings.
While the public and activist groups used the Internet to promote their candidates (partisan bloggers for each party provided a near-continuous echo chamber of commentary), issues (the Culture in Peril YouTube video had a marked impact the Quebec electorate) or to encourage strategic voting patterns (Voteforenvironment.ca received considerable attention), the political parties themselves seemed stuck with Web 1.0 strategies in a Web 2. 0 world. Each party had the requisite websites, yet their most innovative initiatives – the Conservatives' Notaleader.ca and the Liberals' Scandalpedia.ca to name two – were quickly dismissed as juvenile sites that did more harm than good (the New Democrats' Orange Room is a notable exception).
With months of advance preparation, why did the parties perform so poorly?
Part of the reason may stem from the Canadian approach to political campaigns, which emphasizes advance planning with each day fully scripted. Far from the decentralized model that thrives online, Canadian political parties have embraced the exact opposite – a model of top-down, hierarchical messaging with even local candidates constrained and required to follow a common playbook.
This low-risk, low reward approach does little to inspire the public, instead seeking to solidify existing support. It also leaves millions of Canadians on the sidelines as they see little reason to become political engaged or active. Indeed, by the measure of voter turnout, virtually all the parties were losers with more than a million lost votes combined for the Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats (each party received fewer votes in 2008 than they did in 2006).
How can these parties counter voter apathy and low turnout, particularly among younger Canadians?
U.S. Presidential candidate Barack Obama's successful online campaign, developed by technology executives in Silicon Valley, points the way. While the Obama campaign has the proverbial presence on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter, it has recognized that the Internet is not just a broadcast medium. More importantly, it is a communication and participation tool that can be used to empower and engage the public in the hopes of attracting both the undecided and the uninvolved.
The Obama website offers a multitude of opportunities for participation, many of which occur with no campaign involvement or oversight. Tens of thousands of local meetings have been organized through the site, chapters on university campuses and smaller communities have used the site's tools, and the campaign itself has generated millions of dollars through online contributions.
Moreover, both Obama and Republican nominee John McCain have supported open licensing for the presidential debates so that the public can use the footage to create their own videos and engage more actively in the political process. No similar initiatives occurred in Canada. As a result, while the U.S. electorate gets primary debates sponsored by Facebook and thousands of user generated clips posted to YouTube, Canadians get pooping puffins.
Failure to mobilize millions of voters ultimately costs all the political parties. The Internet will not solve all voter apathy issues, but following businesses' lead by developing an online strategy that reflects opportunities for empowerment is the right place to start.