The Honesty of Online Politics

By Robert Heinrich7.10.2010Global Policy

Listening, persuading, mobilizing – political campaigning and canvassing are made easier by the social web. Now that the Obamamania is over, political parties are well-advised to continue courting their online supporters.

Even before the last federal election in Germany in 2009, the online political community was growing tired. They had waited for an Obama-like enthusiasm to materialize on the internet but had witnessed only the clumsy and ill-fated attempts of party politicians to give themselves a “cool” aura. Boring, timid, embarrassing, irrelevant – the assessments of online campaigning were rarely positive. Has the political machine failed online?

Facebook is the seismograph of the internet

No way! Instead, the science of political communication finds itself in a time of change that is without precedent in recent history. All political parties need to adjust to new realities, and some are more apt to do so than others. The strategy of concentrating on mass media slogans, colorful images and top-down, one-way communication is dead. Is there anyone who can remember the slogans from even the last electoral cycle? No, the trend is towards the oldest and most effective means of communication: the dialogue. The internet is well-suited for this form of communication, and we can observe several interesting developments. The social web offers a unique platform for political advocacy and campaigning: it enables politicians to listen to their constituents on a bigger scale than ever before. What are their concerns? How do they react to campaign slogans? What do they think about legislative initiatives or policy proposals? Until now, the only options were phone banks or door-to-door canvassing. Today, the online communities of Facebook, Twitter, etc. are quicker and more reliable in providing poll samples. They provide data and spawn ideas and action plans. Additionally, it is becoming increasingly feasible for political parties to seek dialogue with their constituents. Just take a look at the “3DayWatch” project from the German Green Party: during the final 72 hours of the federal election campaign, more than 200 volunteers answered more than 12,500 questions around the clock. Everything was streamed live: the debates over tough questions and possible post-election coalitions but also the tired eyes and empty pizza boxes that increased with time. And 250,000 tuned in. The format worked because it was so simple: the voter asks a question and receives an answer, as comprehensive as possible, and without being lectured.

Power to the (party) people

Far from being a channel for the exchange of movie clips, pictures and texts, the internet has blossomed into a truly social space. People go online to network and to hone their opinions. What was true before for the country club or the bloc party is now true for the internet: information is most believable when it comes from someone we know. Grass-roots party organizers thus tend to be more persuasive than politicians themselves. The question is less how many people “like” a certain party or politician on Facebook or Twitter and more how effective the rank-and-file is in communicating the party’s policy proposals through small and semi-private channels. Rather than reducing the importance of mass parties, the internet is strengthening it. Listening, persuading, mobilizing – these are indeed classic components of any political campaign. They remain important in the digital age as well. Political parties must remember these roots and set sail for new shores if they want to communicate effectively.