Overall, Peter John Chen’s findings are that the use of epolitics continues to be rather disappointing, with a ‘strong cognitive dissonance between the promise (or expectation) and the reality of online media’s political edge’. In this new world of communication, which is a potential vehicle for improved democracy, the political elites still don’t ‘get it’. Political parties’ use of epolitics in 2008 was mostly unimpressive according to Chen, especially due the sameness of the parties’ websites:
most of the campaign websites exhibited a degree of sameness in terms of general layout, tending to focus on material that appeared in the browser window when the front page of the site is first viewed. The sites also clearly delineated elements of the site’s content with boarders and coloured sections, and had the leader’s (or leaders’) photograph(s) prominently displayed.
In terms of this web blanch mange, the partial exceptions were the websites of the Māori Party (which ‘used a blog as the basis for its website’) and Green Party (which used a good ‘splash page’, kept everything on the screen above ‘the fold’, and experimented with user-generated content). But overall, the elites that do ‘get it’ most seem to be National and the Greens, who apparently performed best online.
National Party epolitics success
In examining the use of online media Chen identifies ‘a clear performance gap’ between Labour and National:
in terms of the main campaign websites, the way the leaders employed social networking services, and the use of online video by the parties, the overall use of online media by the National Party was superior to that of Labour. National presented a clean, crisp online presence, as a result of a decision by senior party managers to focus on the development of a strong online presence that built upon activities in the 2005 election.
Chen is particularly complimentary about National’s main website’s modern design, its functionality, and general online literacy. He says that its incorporation of video reflecting the party’s theme of newness.
The National Party maintained a more centralised approach, which did not prevent it from employing an array of secondary websites and social networking services, but ensured these were all situated within the context of the core party website.
He suggests that National’s many secondary minisites also worked in well with the main site, mentioning John Key’s site (focused on the leader), the Blue-Liberals site (focused on small government advocates within the party), the SuperBlues site (for supporters over sixty years), the bluegreens site (for the Party’s advisory group on environmental issues), and the internats (targeting expatriate supporters).
Chen – who is Australian – says that all of this strong online activity acted as ‘a signifier’, allowing John Key to be clearly linked with (and represented by) the ‘future’, just as Kevin Rudd and Labour had done so with the www.kevin07.com.au website which ‘introduced a comparatively new and young leader to the electorate through strong association with modern technology’.
Chen also argues that ‘John Key’s use of an online video diary demonstrated fluency with a variety of policy issues, and his use of direct to camera discussions created intimacy with the leader’. In general, National’s use of online video is also highlighted:
Overall, the National Party posted more than three times the number of online videos than Labour during the course of the campaign, with ongoing and staggered release of content throughout the campaign period. National also produced the most varied set of videos, including mixes of informal and formally produced content, in addition to ‘repurposed’ television advertising. In terms of tone, National online video was predominantly positive (70 per cent) or used comparative messages (30 per cent), while Labour produced content more oriented towards contrast (44 per cent) or negative themes (22 per cent).
Chen also points to the interesting fact that National was relatively unique in the note purchasing online political advertising during the campaign – ‘This was an interesting decision partially driven by financial constraints, but also based on the view that the party’s election and communications strategy would generate interest that would drive traffic online to National sites’.
Labour’s epolitics failure
Apparently ‘Labour spent approximately 10 per cent of the total campaign budget on online media’, but it was mostly poorly spent – especially because of the party’s confused and ill-designed use of numerous websites:
Leading into the election, the Labour Party maintained two websites: an organisational website focused on members and a website for the parliamentary party. Rather than co-ordinate campaign content through an established website (as the Green Party did, with some difficulties on occasion (Reese 2009)), the party decided to launch a third site www.labour08.org.nz. This allowed the Party to focus this site on campaign-oriented communication. Having three different websites, however, presented problems in obscuring the focus of the party’s core message during the campaign and splitting resources
Unfortunately for Labour, the main campaign site was inferior to both the organizational and parliamentary sites. This approach hasn’t been adequately explained, but was presumably due to Labour’s concerns about political finance and the fact that it’s main site (www.labour.org.nz) is paid and operated via parliamentary funding, leading to a worry that any overt electioneering might cause further problems with the Auditor-General etc.
In social networking, too, Labour’s approach was poor. As Chen points out, ‘Helen Clark’s Facebook page achieved negative notoriety early in the campaign because it was established and maintained by volunteers, and the Prime Minister stated that she was ‘too busy’ to check the site (McNeilly 2008). Her supporters were considerably outnumbered by Key’s for most of the campaign’.
Chen carried out ‘a content analysis of online media employed by 92 candidates’ looking at ‘these candidates’ use of email, representation on party websites, personal websites, other website use (e.g. blog sites), and use of social networking’. From this, he found that their use of epolitics was comparatively low – with 13% of candidates having a campaign website (but with 37% of National candidates having a site).
A possible explanation for this low use of online media, according to Chen, was the restrictive nature of the Electoral Finance Act, or at least uncertainly and ambiguity about associated expenditure which possibly meant candidates were unwilling to ‘invest in infrastructure early in the campaign process’.
While there doesn’t appear to be any correlation between use of epolitics and electoral performance, Chen concludes that ‘online media played an important, if supporting, role in the 2008 election’. He draws attention to details of the election campaign increasing the amount of traffic to politically-oriented websites – pointing to a short but interesting Hitwise article by Sandra Hanchard, which shows that there was a 350% online traffic spike during the final week of the campaign. Another Hitwise article shows the web search stats for various NZ politicians.
Chen’s chapter is the only significant academic study (that I know of) of epolitics in the 2008 New Zealand election. It greatly adds to the small literature on New Zealand epolitics (such as journal and chapter articles by Karina Pedersen, Kane Hopkins, Donald Matheson, Peter Fitzjohn and Rob Salmond).
Peter John Chen teaches in politics and public policy at the University of Sydney. His research interests focus on the political use and impact of communications technologies. He is the author of Electronic Engagement: A Guide for Public Sector Managers and the co-author of Electronic Democracy? The Impact of New Communications Technologies on Australian Democracy.
Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008, edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig
Published by Pearson Education, 2009.
More information here.
Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: Mediated Politics - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward, Chris Rudd
2. Party Strategy and the 2008 Election - Bryce Edwards
3. The Election Campaign on Television News - Margie Comrie
4. Leaders’ Debates and News Media Interviews - Geoffrey Craig
5. ‘Vote for me’: Political Advertising - Claire Robinson
6. Newspaper Coverage - Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward
7. The Maori Party and Newspaper Coverage - Ann Sullivan
8. Online Media - Peter John Chen
9. Conclusion: Don’t shoot the messenger? - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd