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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December 2004, 09:45 GMT
The internet and elections
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

The internet may have been an important factor in the recent US presidential elections but it was e-mail - and not political websites - that made the biggest impact.

That was the message from two leading internet gurus, who addressed MPs and political webloggers in Westminster on Tuesday.

Howard Dean campaigning
Howard Dean used the internet to galvanise support

American internet pioneer Phil Noble cited Howard Dean - who missed out on the Democratic nomination but raised millions in funds on the back of an e-mail campaign - as an example of what was possible.

Mr Dean may have fallen at the final hurdle - brought low by the "rancid politics" of the old media, according to Mr Noble - but the internet had transformed him from a no-hoper to a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

Mr Noble said advocacy sites, such as MoveOn, which started as a campaign against the impeachment of Bill Clinton but became a rallying point for anti war campaigners and Dean supporters, were changing the political landscape.

And the internet meant politics could no longer be purely local.

He cited the Guardian newspaper's ill-fated Operation Clark County, which sought to persuade US voters to back the Kerry campaign but led to an upswing in Bush support, as an example of political campaigns crossing international borders.

The internet was also a major fundraising force, helping John Kerry to rescue his campaign and raise a grand total of $220m.

'Dullest class'

The Republicans had also put the medium to good use, Mr Noble said, organising 30,000 "parties for the president" and spreading online games parodying Mr Kerry's alleged "flip-flopping".

Mr Noble, founder of Politics Online, also had some timely advice for British politicians thinking of how best to use the internet at the next election.

"We as a political class can be the dullest class walking the face of the earth. Don't be dull. It isn't a dull medium," he told the meeting, which was jointly organised by The Hansard Society, Voxpolitics and the All-Party Committee for e-Democracy.

Jokes were an important factor in the US election, with millions of voters sending each other satirical video clips and songs.

Political weblogs were also seen as important an medium for breaking news - such as the rumour about George Bush had worn a wire during a TV debate.


But if Mr Noble dazzled the audience in Westminster Hall's Grand Committee Room with a display of old-time e-evangelism, they were brought rapidly down to earth by Professor Stephen Coleman, of the Oxford Internet Institute.

Yes, the internet had had an impact in the US, Prof Coleman said.

A YouGov America survey of 3,500 internet users in the week before the presidential election found:

  • About 12% of Americans who had access to the internet sent an e-mail about the presidential elections

  • The under 24s trusted online media more than television as a source of political news

  • The over 65s were more active in visiting political websites than the under 24s

But it was important to keep things in perspective.


British politics is based around parties more than personalities - and the UK's political parties were in serious trouble, Prof Coleman said.

Tony Blair with a laptop
Politicians are always keen to pose with new technology
Within ten years, he claimed, they could be without a significant popular base.

Their centralised, overly-controlled "monologue" was failing to connect with voters, and "going online is not going to save that".

It was the same with television, Prof Coleman said.

"Politics on television isn't failing because of the internet. It is failing for the same reason Crossroads failed. Public taste has changed."

The public are no longer deferential. They were not just interested in listening to politician's pronouncements and deciding whether they agreed with them or not, Prof Coleman told the meeting.

They wanted to challenge the old institutions, which were crumbling around them as a result.

Soviet era

Weblogs by politicians - sometimes heralded as the future of political discourse - were probably just a "passing wonder," he argued.

A rotten campaign with a great internet site is a rotten campaign
Phil Noble, Politics Online
And even if the internet does usher in a new age of political communication, there is no guarantee it will be any better than the one we have now.

For example, Prof Coleman said, the new medium allowed the BNP's message to get into people's homes, something he was not happy with.

"I don't think we should assume that the flowers that are going to bloom are going to be more pretty than the flowers that bloom already," he told the meeting.

He also had short shrift for government efforts to boost online democracy, comparing it to Soviet era efforts to "bring democracy to the people".

Instead, the government should be "moving away from the MP as an authority figure towards a more conversational kind of democracy".

'Interpersonal networks'

It was no use targeting simplistic messages at the lone internet user.

The answer was "interpersonal networks," such as MoveOn or Meetup, or more informal groups and conversations between friends and colleagues.

The internet only came into its own as a medium when like-minded people used it to hook up with each other and flex their political muscle.

"Interpersonal networks matter as much as the web. Networks are where the power is," he said.

But the big parties had not done the groundwork between elections "to capitalise on such networks," so they were unlikely to take off during the next UK election campaign.

Mr Noble said he agreed with "80 or 90%" of Mr Coleman's analysis.

The possibilities of the internet as a political tool had barely been tapped, he said, but he added "a rotten campaign with a great internet site is a rotten campaign".

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