Political battles are now fought on the Internet

Thursday, January 8, 2004

Those wondering when the federal election campaign is going to start may be surprised to learn that it already has. No one is running any election ads and no lawn signs are up, but the campaign is already clearly visible to anyone with a computer and a modem.

The NDP fired the first volley in the Internet campaign when it launched
www.flyourflag.ca, a tongue-in-cheek poll aimed at deciding which flag Paul Martin should raise over the Peace Tower when sworn in as Prime Minister. It was a none-too-subtle dig at Martin's unfortunate history of reflagging his ships in order to avoid Canadian taxes and labour standards. By all accounts, Martin and his team were absolutely apoplectic at the NDP's website.

Just before Christmas, the Liberals added a prominent page to their own website www.liberal.ca, dubbed "Say Anything Jack" and comparing NDP Leader Jack Layton to the likes of Howard Stern. So far, it features only two poorly-written releases, both of which purport to expose "lies" told by the NDP. Within days, the NDP had posted a detailed rebuttal at www.ndp.ca. The party also suggested that the Liberals' site was "the latest proof that the NDP is the party on the rise in federal politics. Paul Martin is clearly worried (about the NDP)." Indeed, there is nothing on the site attacking (or even mentioning) any other party, so the NDP may have a point.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party of Canada took weeks to remove the "under construction" sign from their website www.conservative.ca. For another week after that, the site consisted of a press release about the new party logo. Even now, the site is sparser than even most riding association websites, and merely links to the outdated sites of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives. While the shabby status of the Conservatives' web presence is likely a reflection of a much deeper lack of organization, it seems clear that Canada's newest political party is already being left behind.

Of course, it's not only political parties that will be involved in deciding the outcome of the coming election. The creators of www.paulmartintime.ca, have parodied the look and format of Martin's own site, while providing loads of useful but unflattering information about Canada's twenty-first Prime Minister. Martin's team was so impressed by the site that they threatened to sue its creators (and, like the Fox News suit against author Al Franken, thereby gaining further publicity for the site).

In the United States, the role that the Internet plays in campaigns is gaining considerable attention, largely because of the unprecedented success of Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean. New York Times columnist Frank Rich, in a compelling piece entitled "Napster Runs for President", explores Dean's use of the Internet and its role in creating the surprising momentum behind his campaign. "Rather than compare Dr. Dean to McGovern or Goldwater, it may make more sense to recall Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. It was not until FDR's fireside chats on radio in 1933 that a medium in mass use for years became a political force. JFK did the same for television, not only by vanquishing the camera-challenged Richard Nixon during the 1960 debates but by replacing the Eisenhower White House's prerecorded TV news conferences (which could be cleaned up with editing) with live broadcasts. Until Kennedy proved otherwise, most of Washington's wise men thought, as New York Times columnist James Reston wrote in 1961, that a spontaneous televised press conference was 'the goofiest idea since the Hula Hoop'.

Rich adds that "such has been much of the reaction to the Dean campaign's breakthrough use of its chosen medium. In Washington, the Internet is still seen mainly as a high-velocity disseminator of gossip (Drudge) and rabidly partisan sharp shooting by self-publishing excoriators of the left and right. In other words, the political establishment has been blindsided by the Internet's growing sophistication as a political tool -- and therefore blindsided by the Dean campaign -- much as the music industry establishment was by file sharing... The condescending reaction to the Dean insurgency by television's political correspondents can be reminiscent of that hilarious party scene in the movie Singin' in the Rain, where Hollywood's silent-era elite greets the advent of talkies with dismissive bafflement. 'The Internet has yet to mature as a political tool,' intoned Carl Cameron of Fox News last summer."

For better of for worse, many of the campaign techniques used in the United States eventually make their way up to Canada (although our attack ads remain comparatively mild and the amount of money in our political system is a drop in the bucket compared to the U.S.). Whichever political party figures out how to take advantage of the power of the Internet will have a head start in reaching voters. So far, it looks like the NDP is forcing the Liberals to play catch up, while the Regressive Conservatives are still stuck in the starting blocks.

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