Trolls, John Howard and the Over-Manipulation of Reality

I wanted to write about this for ages but packing my stuff, filling out fascist custom forms and trying to read every book I can get a hold on before I leave Australia next week kept me quite busy.The article Espen points out, It's not the blogs I hate, it's their fans, reminded me of a piece I read on the Age website the other day: Cyberspace: It's the new toilet wall. What both pieces eventually come down to is the issue of trolling: a problem that persists since my German forefathers used their steam powered internets to order the weekly sausage supply. A claim isn't necessarily false if it get's repeated on a regular basis for decades and indeed trolling is a problem – without mutual respect there's no debate – but what makes the Age's piece interesting is linking the seedy orcus of the net with John Howard's Youtube speech on global warming. As Andrew Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Sydney points out in the Age piece:

"Whoever advised the Prime Minister to do it was probably ill-informed on the sort of responses he'd get. I don't think … whoever put that video together realised that forum is extraordinarily public and uncensored.. I think politically it was a huge mistake. Especially at this stage, in the lead-up to an election, this is not the medium you use for the first time without knowing the consequences and the demographic."

On the one hand John Howard's image is quite a conservative one, so maybe his advisors thought that by using the technology of the day he could appeal to a younger demographic who just knew him as the dude with the eyebrows. Fair enough. But then again: John Howard rightfully earned the image of a conservative, especially when it comes to the cause of advancing technology. It was his government after all that didn't do anything about the catastrophic broadband conditions. Also the troubles the Liberals had in utilizing Myspace are representative for the incoherent handling of these platforms (e.g. the Youtube video didn't appear on Howard's Myspace profile). All this would probably have worked better if Howard showed his affection for new forms of communications (new for him anyways) by starting his own blog. Through careful moderation he could have set the standards for conversations; it would have offered him a platform in which he could have embedded his Youtube videos which then could have been debated in a calmer tone. Or his campaigners could at least have employed some supporters to counter the nasty attacks (albeit in a subtle manner; letting people sign up a day before his video appeared without having posted a video or at least some comments elsewhere would probably have caused too much suspicion) – although another, bigger problem might lie in here. As “the doctor of spin” Steve Stockwell points out in his book “Political Campaign Strategy” the Liberal's spin over the years caused a over-manipulation of reality that comes with it's costs. For a while the government was no longer comfortable talking to its constituents who were all spun out: "This is the danger of too much spin. There comes a time when it is too easy for your opponents to put out the spin that all your pronouncements are spin. There will never be a return to a time without spin because because politics is always about spin, but as the public become more media savvy the observation of spin and criticism, not only of its techniques but also its contents will become a media staple as journalists and citizens learn to create democracy from within the information flow” It seems that the media-savvy demographic “spins” back, respectively expresses its anger over the spin it had to endure over the years – in a crass language that was born out of a medium with a short attention span.

Blog Campaiging: 4.1 Measuring effects: Does web-campaigning win votes?

4.1 Measuring effects: Does web-campaigning win votes?

Studies attempting to measure the effects of web based campaigning are limited and the evidence that has emerged is mixed (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 5).

Conducting one of the earliest analyses of the effects of web-campaigning D’Alessio found that websites had a strong effect on votes during the 1996 U.S. congressional election (Gibson & McAllister 2005, pp. 5-6). D’Alessio found that “a website provided a candidate with an additional 9,300 votes, after controlling for party affiliation and incumbency” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 5). However, sceptical of his own findings D’Alessio (1997, p. 498) argued that: “it seems very unlikely that each candidate’s web site inspired 9,300 (on the average) additional people to vote for that candidate”. He argues that it is more likely that (1) “Use of a web site may be an indication of the candidate's use of any of a wide variety of alternative methods of campaigning. That is, posting a Web site is one element of an entire suite of strategies employed by the candidate, the sum of whose payoffs is subsumed under the main effect for having a Web site in this analysis”, (2) “The Web site might not have induced people to change their votes (or convert) but instead may have inspired a number of people to vote who otherwise would not have”, and (3) “rather than the establishment of a Web site (or associated activities) leading to extra votes, instead candidates may establish Web sites in part as a result of opinion poll position” (D’Alessio 1997, p. 498).

The impact of web-campaigning has also been explained by a general growth in the audience seeking news and information online (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 6). Several reports suggest that the number of people seeking news on the Internet, particularly when it comes to information about political campaigns, has grown significantly in the last few years (Williams et al. 2005, p. 177). A multivariate analysis performed by Farnsworth and Owen found that online news and information had a significant effect on people’s voter decisions in the 2000 U.S. presidential election (in Gibson & McAlister 2005, p. 7). Bimber and David came to the opposite view when they applied a more sophisticated multivariate analysis to the 2000 U.S. presidential election. The authors examined the impact of candidate websites on individuals’ levels of knowledge, positive or negative feelings and voting behaviour and found that “most people were not affected by what they viewed online, particularly in terms of being mobilised to vote” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, pp. 7-8). Analysing the 2001 and 2004 Australian federal election, Gibson and McAllister (2005, p. 16) found support for a hypothesis suggesting that the use of websites has a strong effect on people’s voting decision.

“Our results reveal support for the proposition that a web campaign is an integral part of securing victory in an election” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 16).

Gibson and McAllister found that:

“Candidates who maintained a web page increased their first preference vote by just over 4 percent, net of individual and party resources, party membership and other aspects of campaigning” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 13).

The study concluded that the importance of having a website was only superseded by incumbency and party membership. However, Gibson and McAllister (2005, p. 17) argue that as the use of the web and email in campaigns becomes more mainstream one might see this effect become less profound.

It is clear that studies focusing on the effects of the web on the political process are in the same inconclusive state as Bartels (1993) and Berelson (in Diamond & Bates 1984) find the research in the “media effects” area to be. Some studies have found that electioneering via the Internet has “minimal effects” on people’s voting behaviour; other have found it to have “strong effects”. Some are sceptical of their own findings while some see the effects become less profound as the Internet becomes a more mainstream electioneering tool. Perhaps it is D’Alessio’s (1997) alternative explanations that so far give us the most comprehensive idea of the impact the Internet has on the political process. Even so, the inconclusive state of research on the subject clearly demonstrates an urgent need for more research to be carried out in the near future. Today the web plays a crucial part in any political campaign. We therefore need to ask which aspects about blogs can impact voter decisions, and whether previous attempts of identifying the relationship between web-campaigning and voter decisions also can be used to test the impact of blogs on contemporary elections. Furthermore, we need to ask which aspects of blogs, not before considered, can have an impact on political campaigns and help change the outcome of an election.