Here are all of the posts tagged ‘politics’.
With the buzz about the remixed Conservative Party election posters and Clifford Singer’s MyDavidCameron website a few days old I thought I’d reflect on the debate and offer up some analysis about what might be going on here and what it means for political parties ahead of the election.
But before I can do that I need to jump back to September last year when I discussed Manuel Castell’s theory of networked power and suggested how it could be applied to the UK’s political blogosphere.
In a nutshell, Castells argues that power in networks is fundamentally about the ability to establish and control particular networks.
This can be achieved by one of two ways:
- the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network (largely by setting and controlling the way we perceive issues and information)
- the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources (i.e. identifying like-minded networks with which you can work to challenge the dominant program)
Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’ and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.
I argued that Conservative and right-wing blogs were successful because they had programmed the UK’s political network by a) adapting early and b) creating a broad anti-government debate which resonated with the media and wider public.
This meant that left and liberal bloggers had to find common issues and threads with each other and the public with which to try and switch the dominant power in the network away from anti-government/right-wing debate.
So what does this tell us about the MyDavidCameron success? Firstly, I think it supports my original hypothesis. That is, Labour have identified a wider – albeit smaller – network outside of the UK political blogosphere with a shared value (mocking David Cameron/the Conservatives and graphic design).
They are then co-opting this network, forming a strategic partnership but letting the idea and content go where it goes, as opposed to trying to centrally plan and control what happens with the David Cameron imagery.
In my opinion, a political party having the foresight and ability to spot an opportunity like this and use it to help try to ‘switch’ the dominant discourse in the political blogosphere is smart.
Yes, there may be those that say: “well, who wouldn’t jump on an opportunity if it arose?” But I’d argue that the traditional approach to this kind of online meme would be to try and own it: take it in-house.*
I think Labour have deliberately avoided doing this, having learnt the lesson from last summer’s #Welovethenhs grassroot campaign that which Labour co-opted, arguably tried to centralise and quickly destroyed the value in the network. Compare how they’re currently using a Labour Party version of MyDavidCameron (i.e. becoming another node in the network) versus their mini-campaign site for #Welovethenhs which argubly tries to own the decentralised campaign network.
But thinking logically about the MyDavidCameron campaign: would Labour seeking to ‘own’ the network really kill it in the same way that it killed #Welovethenhs?
I’m not so sure for two reasons:
- Firstly, the #Welovethenhs campaign was not a pro-government campaign; nor was it an anti-tory campaign. It was a pro-public healthcare system campaign. It’s an issue that traditionally has a shared value for with liberal/left networks but not solely. Labour arguably killed this campaign as it tried to go further than switching and instead reprogram the networks’ values as pro-government/pro-Labour.
- Secondly, network alignment based on shared opposition to David Cameron and/or the Conservatives is one thing, but the reality is that only Labour can defeat the Conservatives at an election. Therefore, Labour trying to reprogram the goal of the networks driving the MyDavidCameron campaign to be pro-Labour is actually a smart move.
What this says to me is that now we’re entering the run up to an election, the political discourse is no longer split broadly between anti-government/right-wing ideology and pro-Government goals (that were largely indistinguishable form Labour policy).
Instead, Labour is starting to reprogram the UK’s political networks through creating a discourse of Conservatives vs Labour. It’s early days and the Conservatives still have the upper hand but I’d argue that the MyDavidCameron campaign plus the recent emergence of distinct left and Labour-aligned voices is starting to re-balance the pro-right-wing goals of the UK’s political networks.
* What this reveals is Labour’s ability to switch between a traditional command and control political party and a node in a fluid, participative network. Something Andrew Chadwick has defined as “organisational hybridity” – the internet driven phenomena that enables organisations and institutions to switch between being member-led hierarchical institutions, single-issue campaign groups or temporary, loosely joined networks of like-minded individuals. I believe this is what political parties of the future will look like: political parties in all but name, But that’s something for another post.
This week Robin, Simon and I attended an event at Demos entitled “Is the Internet really changing politics?”. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a trivial question – the success of the Obama campaign, the rise of political blogging and the creation of new civic institutions such as MySociety all point to a simple “yes”, the open-ended nature of the question meant the panellists were free to take us down the roads they were on.
Coming out firmly fighting for the Internet was Tom Watson MP, one of Britain’s first blogging politicians and in his post-ministerial career, leading campaigner for digital rights and the gaming industry. Though the next election will still rely heavily on broadcast media, he sensed change in the air on how political institutions and parties use the web, but emphasised it will take strong leadership to use digital technologies wisely. This is particularly pertinent given the existing tension between the proponents for digital scarcity and digital plenty – restrictions such as DRM, disconnection of suspected filesharers and data record retention will only serve to restrict the Internet’s potential as well as encouraging repressive regimes abroad to follow suit.
In the other corner is Evgeny Morozov, who has this month’s cover feature in Prospect, arguing that the Internet has done little to topple dictatorships, and in some cases, has actually aided authoritarian regimes in oppressing their political opponents (to which Clay Shirky has written a reposte). Morozov is right in this respect – despite the wealth of grassroots movements and citizen journalists, no government has yet been toppled by a microblog platform or social network. However, you’d have to be hard pressed to find a digital activist who has spent any time working in the ‘real’ online world to claim that the web is going to topple old regimes; to claim that it’s just going to be online tools that revolutionise or even destroy politics is glib and harmful.
Although it’s easy to label such discussions as optimists versus pessimists, it’s rarely that case. Tom Watson as an MP is well used to the realities of working political life, while Evgeny Morozov is no Andrew Keen and in his piece proposes several constructive, optimistic ideas about how to make our use of the web better in helping spread democracy abroad. Although both would disagree on some things, no doubt they would agree that the Internet is largely a neutral technology – or if not that, then a highly flexible one – and that results depend not just on the tools you use but how you use them.
Using the Internet to effectively campaign politically needs not just a nice blog, or a Facebook group, or a Twitter hashtag (although they’re all good starts); you need to know what your goal is, who your likely followers are, and the people in power you need to target. You need to educate users in the tools they are use and the risks they bear using them, as well as dealing with the possibility of being subverted or misrepresented by your opponents and detractors. In short it needs to deal with precisely the things any ‘offline’ campaign would have to deal with – it’s about ignoring the difference between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ and approaching the Internet with maturity and an open mind.
So what’s the answer to the question? It’s very hard to see when you’re in the middle of it, but slowly politics is changing, but probably not as much as the optimists like to make out. It’s certainly not been as radically altered as the music and news industries, but it’s also not hard to see the mistakes some in these industries made treating the internet as a fringe phenomenon and refusing to see the changes it was bringing until it was too late. It would be very poor for democracy if political parties and institutions made similar mistakes…
Last night I was a guest at the Editorial Intelligence seminar entitled “commentariat v. bloggertariat” – a discussion of how newspaper opinion columnists and bloggers coexist and work together.
The versus in the title immediately set the tone for contrast and confrontation; Iain Dale came out fighting for the blogosphere, with a provocative opening: “the fact that the Twitter hashtag for this event is #eiblogger and not #eicomment rather indicates the organisers believe bloggers are winning.” As well as that, he scolded The Times over the recent outing of anonymous blogger Nightjack. Batting equally fiercely for the other side, David Aaronovitch was disdainful of bloggers, boasting that no blogger could ever get an interview with Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who he was interviewing the following day, while the Spectator’s Martin Bright said he couldn’t think of a single classic blog post he had ever read.
While it provided entertainment, the confrontational tone and setup didn’t really help bring us to any constructive conclusions. Newspapers are in trouble, it was repeatedly stated, yet bloggers are way down the list of reasons why that is so – the very fundamentals of news distribution and advertising sales have been overturned and will not return to their old state again. When the discussion moved away from the artificial distinction it proved to be a bit more nuanced and interesting – Iain Dale gave the perfect example of a blogger who has crossed over into the mainstream media – himself – while Mick Fealty revealed about how stories from his blog, Slugger O’Toole, would shape the coverage in the Belfast newspapers the following day.
Those in the mainstream media camp gave a less open-minded and concessionary view; all too often blogs and bloggers were conflated with the opinions left in comments on online news articles, or even worse, the ‘green ink brigade’ formerly managed by letters page editors (thus protecting journalists from their audience). Astonishingly, Anne Spackman of the Times suggested that the law on defamation and hate speech was a good enough set of rules for commenting on articles. The law is a bare minimum – what is agreed by the majority of society to be totally unacceptable. To better manage your communities you need a lot more than that; after all, you are only as good as the people who comment on your site – and I find many online newspaper’s reader comment sections to be poor, full of incoherence, poor spelling and grammar and some comments filled with outright spite. No wonder some journalists are utterly averse to engaging more with their audience.
There is more to social media than just allowing reader comments on your articles – indeed, there is more to the online community around your site than people leaving comments. Newspapers and their readers are capable of much more given the right tools and the right community management – such as the Liverpool Post’s crowdsourcing of its front page or the new Help Me Investigate initiative from 4iP. Mark Thompson, who was in the audience last night, and his recent analysis of safe seats and MP’s expenses, is a great recent example of blogs contributing new content and analysis whilst inspired by mainstream media.
With some notable exceptions like the above, there is too much of a culture of antagonism, on both sides in this debate, but especially from some of the mainstream media stalwarts who attended last night. Letting your lawyers, rather than your community managers, be the arbiters of what is considered acceptable behaviour and participation, is just one symptom of this culture; dismissing blogging out of hand or demanding anonymous but lawful bloggers be unmasked. The good thing is that newspapers are, relatively speaking, miles ahead of where they were 5 years ago, and some of the more social media-savvy in this space do get it; I’d love to see some of the more constructive dialogue these forward thinkers could have with the same bloggers who were there last night.