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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2007, 10:00 GMT
The power of online campaigning
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News website

Hillary Clinton announced her presidential bid via her website
Hillary Clinton announced her presidential bid via her website
Hillary Clinton intends to "talk", "chat" and "start a dialogue" Oprah-style with potential voters via the internet. In this, she joins a number of high-profile politicians who are harnessing the potential power of the internet to woo voters directly.

Like her current main competitor for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Senator Barack Obama, she eschewed the traditional televised speech and made her announcement via her website.

This came a few days after John Edwards' White House ambitions were unveiled on a video broadcast on Google's YouTube.

All this underscores something that people have known for some time - the growing impact that the internet is having on politics and how it is likely to shape the 2008 presidential election.

Over in Europe, the internet has acquired an unprecedented importance in France's presidential campaign. While many of the French parties were on the web in 2002's presidential elections, the impact of political sites is being seen as much bigger this time around.

French connection

Frontrunners Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy are both embracing the campaigning possibilities the internet offers. Ms Royal's Desirs d'Avenir (Desires for the Future) is a platform for online forums and debates.

The far-Right National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, has also invested heavily in the web and has gone one step further than his opponents by becoming one of the first European political leaders to open a headquarters in the virtual world of Second Life.

Segolene Royal has her own political site
Ms Royal is using her site to create a more relaxed political persona
In the UK, opposition leader David Cameron is using a regular videoblog as one way of presenting a more modern look to the Conservative Party as it seeks to return to power.

So are such web sites becoming something of a global trend? Not really, says Stephen Ward, an expert in e-democracy at the Oxford Internet Institute. But, he says that in some circumstances it is playing a key role.

"The internet can be a crucial tool in organising supporters and activists in election races that are presidential and personalised in style. The internet is particularly coming into its own in the French and US races," says Mr Ward.

Individual expression

"This is because political campaigning via the web comes into its own where there is room for a lot of individual expression. In France and the US, candidates are essentially starting from scratch," he says. "There isn't the party machine behind the candidates in the same way as there is in the UK."

Howard Dean showed how the web
Howard Dean showed how the internet could be used for fundraising

Surveys in the UK indicate that the impact of the on-line campaign has been fairly low. But Stephen Ward says that this could miss the point.

"Even if the number of people that you are reaching out to is low, there is an indirect, two-step effect. You can get a message out to your supporters and activists, who in turn can be organised to get involved in grassroots activities, such as knocking on people's doors."

Follow the money

It was Howard Dean who first showed the US political class the power of the web in terms of fundraising.

Ravi Sigh, head of ElectionMall.com, which helps candidates and political parties help "win elections via the internet" was quoted recently as saying that in the US in 2006 the online electioneering market was worth $2bn. He estimates that it will be worth some $9.8bn in 2008.

But it was South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun who really showed what the internet was capable of in terms of political campaigning.

Roh Moo-hyun ran an on-line campaign in 2002
South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun showed what the internet was capable of
In 2002, he eschewed mass rallies and traditional campaign tactics and reached out to voters via his website that featured regular webcasts and audio broadcasts by disc jockeys and rock stars.

He ran one of the world's most sophisticated e-mail campaigns. Millions of young people turned to his site and he received thousands of e-mails per day from voters passing on policy ideas.

Many thousands contributed money to his campaign.

Developing countries

South Korea leads the way in terms of internet penetration, and almost half of South Korean voters are below the age of 40 - a prime demographic for users of the internet. Many had been apathetic politically, bored by the country's traditional, political machinery.

So how far has the use of political campaigning extended to developing countries, such as India, the world's largest democracy?

"The internet is not really used as a campaigning tool," says Shefali Virkar, who has researched e-governance in India and other developing countries.

"There is a problem with language, literacy and internet penetration. Popular, face-to-face campaigning is still strong. A large proportion of potential voters are in rural areas and politicians need to get out there to be seen," she says.

George Allen speaking on the campaign trail
YouTube images undermined Senator George Allen 2006 mid-term campaign

That's not to say that the situation couldn't change rapidly, as internet penetration increases and other problems are overcome, Ms Virkar says. But, for the moment, politicians have other problems to tackle before they can move into new media in this way.

While innovation may pay off for those politicians who are seizing the power of the net - there is a downside: transparency.

"Politicians can come unstuck," says Mr Ward. "Political bloggers are very active and aggressively go back and check things that a politician has said. An online campaign means that a candidate can be scrutinised 24 hours a day."


SEE ALSO
Hillary Clinton joins 2008 race
21 Jan 07 |  Americas
2008 election: Main contenders
20 Jan 07 |  Americas

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