By Kerry Blackadar
Political parties contesting this year’s federal election are adopting the language of the internet and moving their attack campaigns online.
The Conservative website NotaLeader.ca, which received a lot of attention for pooping puffins, and the Liberal site Scandalpedia.ca are using Web 2.0 tools to attract younger generations. Yet neither site offers the kind of user participation that is featured on other sites, such as Facebook, which has over ten million Canadians.
Rebecca Bollwitt, a Vancouver social media consultant and blogger, says that “politicians are grasping the concept that new media is the way to go…but they just need a bit of help.”
New media tools can offer politicians a fresh battleground, but, as of yet, no party seems to have the upper hand. With respect to Scandalpedia and NotaLeader, the Liberals and Conservatives “are both trying to use something that is cool, something that is a buzz word of the day, but they are not using it the way it should be used,” says Bollwitt.
Failure to link
The Conservative site attempts to engage its audience by using software tools like Flash. The homepage, which shows Dion standing with arms outstretched in front of a blackboard, offers readers a chance to “Create [Their] Own Ad,” or click on categories, such as the “Excuse Generator” or the “Policy Slot Machine.”
Bollwitt estimates that “the Conservatives probably put a lot of money into th[eir] site…at least five or six figures,” but someone hoping to use some of these links may be disappointed as many do not work.
The only active parts of the site include previously televised Conservative attack ads and the link “Learn About Stéphane,” which connects readers to another attack site, WillYouBeTricked.ca. Here, readers can take the quiz, “Will You Be Taxed?” and by checking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to questions like “Do you use electricity?” determine whether they will be taxed under Dion’s Green Shift plan.
While Bollwitt calls NotaLeader “more entertaining” than its Liberal counterpart, the site fails to truly capture her imagination. “As soon as something doesn’t work, I go away from it,” Bollwitt says. To her, NotaLeader is “really annoying and disappointing.”
Scandalpedia targets younger, internet-savvy generations by mimicking the presentation of the popular online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Available in French and English, this site allows visitors to read biographies of Tory MPs and link to other wiki pages that feature alleged scandals that each have been associated with.
References are included at the bottom of most Scandalpedia articles, but, unlike other wikis, there is no opportunity for users to collaborate and edit its material. “It looks like a wiki, feels like a wiki, but it’s not a wiki,” says Alfred Hermida, a UBC professor of journalism who was recently honoured as one of Vancouver’s top 20 web influencers by NowPublic.com.
Although outsiders are free to make suggestions or send in their own articles to Scandalpedia, “it’s really just at static website,” says Bollwitt. Participatory sites like Wikipedia are open to abuse and can become sources of false information if they are not carefully monitored.
New delivery, old tactics
Many working in the new media industry say that Canadian political parties have not effectively taken advantage of the tools that online platforms offer.
“I think all the Canadian parties are stumbling,” says Monte Paulsen, an investigative reporter with The Tyee and editor of the site’s blog, The Hook. “While the delivery systems are new, the basic election tactic has remained unchanged for more than a century.”
And, unlike televised attack ads that have a wide audience, online ads are at a particular disadvantage. Sites like NotaLeader and Scandalpedia “don’t generally change people’s minds,” says Paulsen, but simply “solidify a party base”.
In order to have a ‘viral’ effect on the internet and influence voters, “you need to be clever and funny,” he says. For Paulsen, The Sweater Vest Bonfire, a video by comedian Mary Walsh, is an example of an effective online attack. The fictitious character Princess Warrior Marg Delahunty verbally assaults Harper before throwing sweater vests on a fire – a scene so absurd that its message is sure to spread across partisan lines.
The political parties may not have adjusted to the new media platform yet, but the 2008 election has seen an explosive political movement among internet users. The NDP’s Jack Layton has over 20,000 Facebook friends and, while Paulsen acknowledges that this does not translate into direct votes, it is a useful way of monitoring the growth of online political activism.
With the advent of Facebook, political blogging, twittering, and amateur attack ads on YouTube, Paulsen says that “it may become clear to Canadians that our electoral riding system is out of date with our highly connected internet driven population.”
For Canada’s political parties vying to form government, making advances at the ballot box will require them to work out how to use these new internet tactics effectively.