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Canadian Parties Practice Politics 1.0 in a Web 2.0 World

Appeared in the Toronto Star on October 20, 2008 as Parties Stick With Obsolete Strategies

Business increasingly recognizes the need for an Internet strategy that engages current and prospective customers.  The days of "brochure-ware" websites that do little more than describe the company and its products or services are gradually giving way to a more engaged experience that includes corporate blogs, videos, and opportunities for genuine interaction.

The same should be true for political parties.  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 ( 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' and the Liberals' to name two – were quickly dismissed as juvenile sites that did more harm than good.

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.

One Comment

  1. Craig Hubley says:

    if you want two-way political discourse online, you have to suppress people like Wayne Crookes
    What more is there to say? As long as shadowy characters inside political parties can remain in the shadows, suppressing comment about them with lawsuits that target even well-meaning mediators and operators of open discourse forums, as long as SLAPP suits against even the Official Opposition are not harshly punished in court, you can expect only cautious moves towards the new social networking political style in Canada.

    Hopefully the Liberals will build on the strong and principled defense they have made of freedom of political expression in the Harper SLAPP case. As part of their “renewal”, they may build forums and an ethic of open two-way discourse that makes such lawsuits very difficult to launch without negative publicity. And, in the long run, prevent any use of civil lawsuits to intimidate political discourse or target intermediaries with so-called “cyber-SLAPP”.

    Until that happens, Canada will remain the most cyber-SLAPPed country in the English speaking world and its politics will remain not only trapped at politics 1.0 but somewhere around politics 0.3 with the early 17th century Star Chamber laws that remain in effect here.

    If you want empirical evidence, just look at the fate of the Green Party of Canada’s Living Platform which was literally intimidated out of functional existence by a small clique of people seeking to remain in control of that party, who found open discourse on its governance to be threatening to that control. It did not take much to kill it and replace it with garbage, blog-based discussions that go nowhere, crammed with unverified claims and not amenable to editing without deleting the entire thread or rendering it insensible.

    Until Canadian laws make political wikis safe to host and mediate, you won’t see a move to politics 2.0 here.