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Notes from the YouGovStone/FT Ask the Experts event on the US election

Posted on Fri, May 16, 2008 at 3:45 PM by Andrew Chadwick

Digital Politics: Effects of the Information Age on the 2008 U.S. Election and Beyond, US Embassy May 15, 2008


* Phil Noble (US) Noble & Associates, Washington DC, Founder – PoliticsOnline
* Dr Andrew Chadwick (UK), Head, Department of Politics and International Relations and Director, New Political Communication Unit, Royal Holloway, University of London
* Joanna Shields (US) International President, Bebo
* Jimmy Leach (UK) Director of Digital Communications, Freud Communications and former Head of Digital Communications for the Prime Minister’s Office

Last night I was one of the panellists at this event. It was a lively and interesting debate, with a good range of perspectives and lots of opportunities for audience members to ask questions. Gideon Rachman from the FT was a superb chair, even managing to squeeze in several email questions along the way. You can also view the webcast here. Carole Stone of YouGovStone and the staff at the US Embassy made us feel very welcome while we waited in the Benjamin Franklin room and during the drinks reception that followed.

First up was Phil Noble, now something of an internet campaign veteran. Phil spoke enthusiastically about the Obama campaign and of how the metrics of success for judging campaigns were now evolving. There were some remarkable statistics about Obama’s online fundraising – currently around the quarter of a million dollar mark.

I followed Phil. My talk - The 2008 Digital Campaign: What's New and Why Things Will (Almost) Always Be Different in the UK - was divided between making four basic points about the current campaign before providing a brief snapshot of mine and Nick Anstead’s research on the interplay between the internet and party institutions and electoral environment. The text of my speech is included below this summary.

Joanna Shields, International President of Bebo, one of the biggest social networking sites and soon to be acquired by AOL, came next, with an interesting perspective on the activities of young people away from the formal politics of voting.

Finally, Jimmy Leach brought us all down to earth with a dose of scepticism, not to mention humour, about politicians’ abilities to adapt to the new communication environment. For example, will the openness of the network campaign continue when a candidate enters office? Not likely, Jimmy suggested.


Gideon Rachman’s blog entry at the FT.

YouGovStone site.


Here’s what I said…

The 2008 Digital Campaign: What's New, and Why Things Will (Almost) Always Be Different in the UK

First, I want to highlight four big themes in online campaigning that we’ve seen - so far - in the 2008 electoral cycle in the United States.

Second, as a political scientist, I’ll briefly consider a major puzzle: why has the internet had a greater impact on parties and election campaigning in the United States than it has in the UK?

So, what’s new and interesting in the 2008 US electoral cycle?

First : it seems to me that the internet is coming of age as a platform for political discourse. It has moved from the model of static pages toward a means of enabling a wide range of goals to be achieved through networked software services. Joanna Shields’ company, Bebo, is obviously a significant part of this general trend.

A second big theme of this election is collective intelligence in online campaigning. A distributed network of creators and contributors, the majority of them amateurs, can, using simple online tools, produce information goods that may better those produced by so-called authoritative sources. Though this is not entirely new - we saw this emerge with Howard Dean in 2004 - we now have a recognisable and proven campaigning model. It is based on online venues loosely meshed together through automated linking technologies, particularly blogs and social networking applications.

The internet now enables ongoing citizen vigilance on a grand scale. Political actors and media elites now inhabit an always-on environment in which it is impossible to escape the “little brother” surveillant gaze of citizen-reporters, from Twitter feeds to Flickr photostreams of marches and demonstrations ignored by mainstream media, to video bloggers and their YouTube uploads. One good example here is Mayhill Fowler, the citizen journalist who first published Barack Obama’s now infamous ‘Bittergate’ remarks a few weeks ago.

A third big theme is that online video is now much more important than it was. YouTube has made a sizeable dent in earlier predictions of the emergence of the slick televisual online campaign, able only to be resourced by wealthy politicians. YouTube video conversations are often effective precisely because they don’t depend upon professional media production techniques.

And what are people watching on YouTube? Well, alongside the countless videos of people using Mentos candy to explode bottles of diet Coke, we find citizens watching unedited 37-minute long political speeches! Consider Obama’s ‘More Perfect Union’ speech delivered in Philadelphia a couple of months ago. By last week, almost 5.5 million people had watched that speech in its entirety. We know this because YouTube does not count partial viewings. [Update: August 21, 2008: whether it does in fact only count complete viewings is uncertain. See here.] Micah Sifry of the Techpresident blog, who we had as a speaker at a recent conference on the politics of web 2.0 at Royal Holloway, has spoken of this as a shift from the sound bite to the sound blast.

My fourth and final big theme is that data are now everything. Those who can successfully mine, refine and subsequently protect it are more likely to emerge as dominant. But the interesting thing is that most of these data have been created by the labor of volunteers and they may simply be the by-products of countless distributed and coincidental interactions. Election campaigns in the United States are now characterized by obsessive and continuous recalibration in response to instant online polls, fundraising drives, comments lists on YouTube video pages, and blog posts. But the key point is that informational value emerges from a combination of distributed user generated content and its centralized exploitation. It blends the campaign war room with the campaign network.

So, briefly, to an interesting puzzle: Why has the internet had a greater impact on parties and election campaigning in the United States than it has in the United Kingdom?

This is a quick snapshot of a forthcoming research paper that I’ve co-authored with my colleague, Nick Anstead.

To answer this question we need to understand how the internet interacts with political institutions - in particular, the organization of political parties and the norms and rules of the electoral environment. These vary greatly across political systems.

So we need to ask: what kinds of institutional features are more likely to have affinities with the technological characteristics of internet communication? A comparative approach allows us to hypothesize what may, or may not, gain traction in different political systems.

We hypothesize that different types of party organization and electoral environment have the potential to catalyze or to retard the development of internet campaigning. This is so because these institutions make new communication technologies more or less useful to candidates and parties.

When looked at comparatively, American parties and campaigns are unusual political institutions - quite different from those found in most European liberal democracies.

Consider two aspects of this:

The US is a much more pluralistic political system than the UK. It is federal, it has a strong separation of powers, and parties are comparatively weak and they are not nationally integrated. The UK is, despite devolution, a unitary system, has a very weak separation of powers, and parties and comparatively strong, integrated and hierarchical.

The pluralistic environment in the United States makes it necessary to build campaign networks composed of horizontal and vertical connections that mesh with the fundamentally fluid basis of the system.

Compare this with the UK, where the lines of communication are more vertically oriented, more firmly drawn and are based in long established formal structures with accompanying bureaucracies. The internet's suitability for creating loose horizontal networks has fewer affinities with this set of arrangements.

Second, the mechanisms for candidate recruitment and selection are also radically different in the two countries.

In the US, primaries and caucuses offer an institutional framework for sanctioned dissent. In the UK, the environment for candidate selection is much less open and fluid, and more nationally-oriented.

The long timescale and the uncertainty of the primaries encourages ‘outsiders’ and forces all candidates to continually build coalitions of support.

When the context is fluid, the risks are high, but the costs of organizational innovation are low, candidates are more likely to experiment online

In the UK, there are (literally) no, or very, very few, ‘outsider’ candidates, the selection process is internal to parties, to a fixed timetable and it’s nationally-uniform.

So in the UK, there is less need to use the internet for lowering costs and reducing uncertainty and risk by spreading a campaign across a wide range of networks.

There are other important differences between the two systems, such as the broader media environment and the rules governing campaign finance. If you want more detail on this argument, do feel free to download the paper at our website at Royal Holloway.

By way of a conclusion, I’d like to remind you that the subtitle of my talk was Why Things Will (Almost) Always Be Different in the UK.

Things may be changing as we speak, mainly because the eroding permanent membership base of British parties may actually be incentivizing them to seek alternative models to mobilize support. Watch this space!

[Crossposted from the New Political Communication Unit group blog]

Edited on: Thu, Aug 21, 2008 5:43 PM

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