By Erin Empey
Canada’s political parties have embraced the digital age in the upcoming election through slick flash animated websites and social networking sites, yet the new technology has done little to update time-tested political strategies.
While ridiculing opponents, taking images and quotes out of context and using suggestive imagery are nothing new to election campaigns, web technology offers new avenues to implement these techniques.
Not content to let their platforms stand on their own merits, both the Liberal and Conservative parties have invested in websites caricaturing each other’s leadership.
“Welcome to our website. My pal Steve and I have the same economic plan, if you can call it that,” begins the southern drawl of a George W. Bush impersonator on the Liberal Party’s website BushHarper.ca. “Heck, he would have joined me in Iraq, and you’d still be there! I’m going back to Texas, but if you vote for Steve, it’d be just like I’d moved up there with y’all!”
Embedded YouTube videos attempt to exploit the Canadian electorate’s animosity towards Bush, displaying images of the two leaders shaking hands. An ominous sounding narrator describes Harper’s economic policies as “Harpernomics”. Smiling families then break the tension under a promise that the Liberals will “put people first.”
The Conservative Party’s effort to reach out to a younger audience via NotaLeader.ca caused controversy last month for featuring an animated puffin pooping on a picture of Stéphane Dion. Stephen Harper apologized and had the poop removed, however the site continues the innuendo with the theme “can we afford to gamble on Stéphane Dion?” Criticisms of Dion are displayed on animated rolling dice while an ominous narrator says “Stéphane Dion; Not Worth the Risk.”
The Liberal Party has three websites dedicated to skewering Harper and attaching the invented catchphrase “Harpernomics” to his economic policies. The main Conservative site features a prominent photo of Dion shrugging. Their external site’s links offer a Dion excuse generator, the option to make your own ad and a blog “written” by Dion’s dog Kyoto, however none of these links were working at the time of writing. The Conservatives offer up a catchphrase of their own, the “Dion Tax Trick”.
The NDP and the Green Party have been less adept at demonizing their opponents on the web. The NDP’s introductory splash page features a picture of Jack Layton with the quote “Unlike Stephen Harper, I’ll act on the priorities of the kitchen table, not the boardroom table.” However, neither party’s websites feature unflattering images of their adversaries on their sites or have developed external sites satirizing their opposition.
The Green Party’s website does not even mention any of the opposition parties or leaders on its homepage.
The impact of an attack website is enhanced if the mainstream media draws attention to it. “From what I’ve seen so far, the effect of Internet campaigns is bigger when the mainstream media takes a story and runs with it,” says Mario Canseco of the polling firm Angus Reid.
“The ‘puffin’ story, for instance, would not have generated so much coverage if reporters from newspapers and TV stations had not discussed it prominently. It started in cyberspace and blogs, but it would have stayed there had it not been for the mainstream media.”
Canseco believes that attack websites are more likely to motivate a party’s supporters than to actually change the minds of undecided voters. Angus Reid conducted two surveys last year where voters were shown negative ads. “Very few respondents saw their perceptions about the person who was being attacked change,” says Canseco, “and respondents were more likely to question the motives of the party that was attacking.”
An Angus Reid poll released on Oct. 5 showed support for the Conservatives at 40%, with the Liberals trailing at 25%. The NDP were at 19% and the Green party were at 6%.