This was supposed to be the internet election. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Australia’s major political parties. They have simply used the online world as an electronic billboard for their negative advertising. The interactive capacity of the web is a threat – not an opportunity – to those already entrenched in our political system.
The day after our election, Republican candidates for the American presidency will answer questions submitted by members of the public through YouTube. The Democratic candidates underwent a similar debate in July, prompting a few questions out of left field. This is hardly a revolution in the use of technology (the questions are vetted by the host broadcaster – CNN) but it is a far cry from the stage-managed nature of our (single) leaders’ debate.
There is no shortage of material about the election online, especially satire. Each of the major news organisations has a strong online presence but they have to compete with those offering their services for nothing. One of the unexpected delights of the election year has been the surfeit of psephology blogs – more graphs than an election-watcher could ever need. It has been interesting to see the mainstream media engage with some of this information. Blogging can also be a source of enlightening, if rancorous, public policy debate.
The big parties, though, are dragging the chain. The chaotic nature of the internet is the worst possible environment for our highly disciplined political parties. When John Howard first ventured onto YouTube with an announcement on climate change, most of the comments were, shall we say, less than complimentary. Try to track down the YouTube submissions by political parties a few days after they are launched and you are much more likely to come across a doctored version of the video that sends up the original.
The parties will seek out ways to make the internet a more controlled environment before they spend too much time online. That is likely to be a losing battle but as long as television continues to serve up mass audiences, new media won’t change the character of election campaigns, which are structured around getting the right images on the nightly news.