Is YouTube the hustings of the 21st century? Will blogs turn citizens into full participants in democratic debate? Is internet activism a fad? Does ePolitics favour the Establishment or the political outsider? These are some questions that I hope to look at in a series of blog postings on ePolitics. This first ePolitics post jumps into the issue with some introductory and optimistic thoughts.
What is ePolitics?
ePolitics - which is obviously a portmanteau of electronic and politics – is otherwise known by terms such as ‘internet activism’, ‘political new technology’, or even eDemocracy. Alternatively we could be talking about ‘political-ICT’, as essentially this is all about political participants making use of the new communications technologies of the internet, email, text messaging, blogs, and online video.
It’s almost a truism to say that ePolitics is really just getting started. After all, at every election some journalist or academic announces that ‘this is the first truly internet election’. Instead we should just realise that every single election is increasingly characterised by ePolitics. But it is indeed correct that the potential of ePolitics as a political force is only just becoming apparent.
Much of the commentary on ePolitics so far has merely been analysing a phenomenon in its infancy. As things develop over the next few years we will get a much better idea of its potential. It’s my opinion – from previous and current experience as a participant and observer of ePolitics – that despite some limitations and drawbacks, it will indeed has a huge effect on political communications. Therefore I place myself in the optimistic ePolitics camp in this regard - while also having a lot of time for the arguments and warnings of the ePolitics pessimists.
This post looks at the development of ePolitics, and asks whether it’s truly revolutionary or merely ‘politics as usual’ and ‘more of the same’. Far from being my definitive or final word on the subject, this will be the first of many postings on this topic on liberation.
In this and future posts I will be concentrating on three main areas where ePolitics is having an effect on:
 the political establishment (the main political parties)
 the political non-establishment (minor parties, interest groups, political activists)
 the citizens (voters and the disengaged)
To elaborate, I’m interested in examining how  the established political parties and politicians - the Establishment, if you like - is using the tools of ePolitics to further their existence and goals, and  how political outsiders are likewise using the tools to level the playing field. Finally,  are citizens served by all of this? Are voters ultimately better off by the access to more information and devices to interact with the political class or internet activists? Or is ePolitics a faddish attempt to dress up tired politics as something more dynamic?
My view at this stage, is that NZ political parties have been slow off the mark to use ePolitics, but that they’re probably about to make a leap forward. Likewise, political outsiders and minnows have already been able to cheaply and easily set up websites and blogs in the digital shop window to put forward their own alternative views, and this trend will only escalate. In terms of the NZ citizenry, my feeling is that ePolitics will increasingly provide significant and meaningful opportunities for new forms of political participation. There is plenty of debate about the potential of the internet as a medium for stimulating political engagement, and hopefully my future posts will engage with this.
US presidential elections
The United States is obviously leading the development of ePolitics. The place to watch developments is on techpresident.com, which monitors the use of new technologies in US politics.
The fight for the presidential nomination is currently the big arena of innovation. Already, we’ve seen some significant new trends. Firstly, when Hillary Clinton wanted to announce her candidacy back in January, she simply posted a video on her website. And as discussed below, video ePolitics have so far been incredibly significant. According to Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, ‘This is the opening round…. The internet is going to be the main event.'
YouTube, vlogs, and viral videos
There are lots of headlines around about how YouTube is the 'new battleground' or the 'hustings of politics' in the 21st century? Certainly there has recently been a lot of substance to this in terms of the early US presidential campaigns. For example, in March, a Barack Obama supporter posted an anti-Hillary Clinton spoof commercial on YouTube, which was subsequently watched several million times in just two weeks. And of course Clinton supporters responded with their own. A more popular Clinton video, however, was the even less political YouTube posting of Hillary Clinton singing the US national anthem off-key and unaware her microphone is on. The whole issue has been labelled 'the Video Wars'.
From a citizen point of view, some people are posting their own videos to YouTube with the request that politicians answer their questions via a corresponding video posting. For instance, ‘new media specialist’ Jeff Jarvis has been telling US citizens to ‘record a question for a presidential candidate, post it on YouTube, and tag it PREZCONFERENCE’ and he would try to organize an answer.
Similarly, in the UK conservative leader David Cameron is actively soliciting questions on WebCameron, which he then answers after web visitors select the best five questions of the week. And British Labour has attempted to ‘talk to the kids’ by setting up Labourvision on YouTube – see 'Labourvision' fails to woo the YouTube generation.
The media corporations and the big web operators are now rushing to establish political sites to be part of ePolitics. For the recent French presidential election, Yahoo set up "Presidentielle 2007" about that country's current election campaign. YouTube has now set up YouChoose '08 - a new channel devoted to US political videos. Rupert Murdoch's MySpace has launched MySpace Impact, apparently to ‘allow candidates to use the network's first 'viral' fund-raising tool’. It has also announced it will host a series of online political events through the 2008 elections – which is not insignificant since the site has about 65m unique US visitors per month.
In an upset for the US system of presidential primaries, MySpace also intends to ‘give America its first presidential primary winner’ with a vote on January 1-2 2008, thereby stealing the thunder of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, which normally initiate the primary process – see MySpace hijacks the race for president.
Social networking sites
The same article points out that the presidential candidates MySpace sites are doing very well. Barack Obama (see www.myspace.com/barackobama) shows that Obama already has more than 99,000 ‘friends’, while Hillary Clinton has only 10,000.
Other web platforms used by parties and politicians include Facebook, and Twitter. Perhaps indicative of the fickleness of the internet - or maybe just a new ‘internet regionalness’ - it has been reported that instead of using MySpace, ‘the bulk of the British political and media establishment has moved on to the social networking site, Facebook’ – see The dark side of Facebook. This article expounds the benefits of using Facebook for ePolitics, saying that not only does it provide ‘the facility to organise your contacts and events and to network and discuss issues with people who share similar interests, whether they be serious or trivial’, it has the ability to ‘organise canvassing sessions, fundraising events, and policy debates’.
And then there is Twitter. British Labour MPs, such as Alan Johnson, have been using this for internal party election battles. Twitter is essentially a ‘microblogging’ tool that allows your registered ‘friends’ or enemies to be constantly aware of what you are doing. Johnson encourages his supporters to text in to subscribe to his twittering, and promotes its on all his campaign leaflets. But as he admits, "It has the potential to be the biggest waste of time in the world - by spending time Twittering your every action or reading about other people drinking their espresso." See: Member of the Twittering classes
In additional, there are a number of new Web 2.0 sites that are becoming ‘politicised’, such as the virtual reality world, Second Life – which now includes political party offices and real party fights.
Today’s ePolitics costs money, but it can also bring in money. Both Obama and Clinton recently claimed that they had received about 25% of their donations through their websites. And as NoRightTurn has pointed out, ‘In the US, the internet has become a vital fundraising tool, particularly for left-wing candidates seeking money from the grassroots’. In NZ, he points out, Labour’s Tony Milne is running for Christchurch City Council and is trying to raise campaign funds online using PayPal’s ChipIn device.
From the point of view of ‘political outsiders’, ePolitics is actually incredibly cheap. Websites, blogs, and vlogs can be established and run for the fraction of the cost of broadcast advertising. Campaigning is perhaps therefore becoming less of a capital-intensive activity, which might make the apparent need for party finance regulation less necessary.
The crucial issue at the moment in ePolitics is the one of interactivity. The trend of Web 2.0 is finally catching up with the political Establishment, who so far has been less inclined to make their ePolitics anything more than a one-way device – from ‘them’ to ‘us’. None of the political parties currently appear to make use of any user generated content, and it may well be that they never will. There is a danger of them losing control over their own ePolitics. But we can certainly expect that it won’t be long before the NZ sites make better use of video feedback.
Unregulated activism and communication
One the best things about ePolitics is the thing that the political establishment fears most about it – it’s hard to control. You can’t regulate the internet – or at least its very difficult to. So while, the Labour Government thinks up more ways to regulate the election campaign, they’re likely to find that the most important new battleground is beyond their control. YouTube, blogs, and party websites are mostly out of the officious grasp of the Electoral Commission and the Police.
So as Mainly Politics has argued recently, ‘This has implications for the present debate about electoral reform in New Zealand. The government may be able to regulate and control paid advertising and campaign activity, but they won't be able to regulate the internet. A pressure group could produce an attack advertisment, post it on YouTube, and have it circulated the length of the country for free. All this could be done without the origins of the ad ever being revealled.' And in my view, this is a good thing.
Also, btw, Mainly Politics has put together an excellent appraisal of the current state of the main political party websites. See: Political party websites - how they compare
Who does ePolitics serve?
At the moment it appears that the Establishment is not going to be able to dominate ePolitics in the same way that it has dominated old politics. The counter argument to this is often that access and use of the internet is strongly weighted towards the certain groups in society, and that it’s the rich and the young that are dominating ePolitics. While I think there’s some truth in that for the moment, I’d also point out that internet access is still growing significantly. The latest Statistics New Zealand data shows that the proportion of households with access has jumped from 37% in 2001 to about 66% in 2007 – see: One million households now online
Clearly NZ politics combines a mixture of early-adopters and electronic laggards. It also combines those that are wowed by the gimmickry, and those that are cynical and blind to the massive potential for change. You might bluntly categorise these groups as ePolitics optimists and ePolitics pessimists. Not surprisingly for a political blogger, I see myself as an optimist is this regard.
In future ePolitics posts I’ll look at how some alternative or ‘political outsiders’ are using ePolitics to compete against the political mainstream.