From Informing to Mobilizing
Kirsten A. Foot and Stephen M. Schneider
MIT Press, 2006
This very interesting academic study, published in late 2006, is a treasure trove of examples of how US political campaigns have used the Web (and the Internet as a whole) over the past decade.
Although a blurb on the back gushes that the book is "the most comprehensive and authoritative work to date on the Internet's impact on U.S. politics", it is nothing of the kind. In the introduction, the authors write that "Political communication scholars may be surprised to find that we do not attempt to access the impact of the Web on users' political behavior or election outcomes".
In fact the book is a detailed examination of the way in which US political campaigns have used the Internet, and develops a general taxonomy or categorisation of political Internet techniques and practices. This taxonomy is applicable far beyond the US or even partisan political campaigning and provides a very useful framework for thinking about how to build campaign sites intended to influence large numbers of people. For this reason, it is perhaps even more useful than a book that analysed specific US electoral impacts.
The authors explain that "Our purpose is to take an in-depth look at campaigns' Web productions in order to unpack their techniques, thereby understanding and explaining Web campaigning practices". The book divides these practices into four broad categories, with many real world examples for each category. These are:
The book tracks the evolution of campaign website information from an early California state legislature campaign site that simply said "Jim is a wonderful guy" to more current sites with video clips, daily blog entries and numerous detailed policy papers. Not surprisingly, virtually all campaign sites have informing as a major goal.
The next stage beyond informing is giving vistors something to do beyond reading information when they visit a campaign site. This can be as standard as joining a mailing list or making a donation to as elaborate as volunteering for online or offline volunteer positions.
The book includes a revealing history of George W. Bush's email address management policies (which tended towards less privacy and more exploitation as email campaigning became more important). It examines five specific examples of techniques that encourage real world ("offline") involvement: downloadable campaign materials (also relevant for mobilizing, see below), participation in real world campaign events, self-organised "Meetup" events, recruiting and coordinating real world volunteers, and encouraging visits to local campaign offices using online maps. It also includes an interesting section on the advantages and disadvantages of discussion boards and blogs and the views of campaign consultants on the impact of giving up the requirement to always be "on message" to allow supporters to express themselves.
The Web was invented to be a vast network of interlinked documents. It is the interlinking that makes the Web into a "web". Nevertheless, connecting is perhaps the most controversial of the four practices identified by Web Campaigning. The authors start their book with the story of how US Vice President Dick Cheney misspoke a URL during a televised debate and sent millions of people to a website attacking the Bush/Cheney administration. Many campaigning organisations, including NGOs, are reluctant to link to content (even with the correct URL!) that they do not control.
Web Campaigning points out that building coalitions is a fundamental part of many political campaigns and that this is often reflected on political campaign sites with links to external sites. One dramatic example the book describes is the front page of the Howard Dean campaign blog, which linked to more than 375 other sites in January 2004. Other forms of connecting include syndicating content using RSS feeds, allowing supporters to promote local events using a calendaring system, linking to positive (or at least relevant) news coverage, web rings (interlinked affliliated sites), and even annotated versions of their opponents' sites.
A key to the success of many online campaigns is to convince a smaller group of committed online supporters to carry the campaign message to a potentially much larger group of people, both online and offline. Web Campaigning includes many examples of how this has been done in US election campaigns, including e-cards, downloadable flyers that can be printed out and distributed, video or audio files that can be run in local media markets as public service announcements or paid advertisements, points to make on talk radio shows or letters to the editor, fundraising, web-organised phone banks, organising house parties, and door-to-door canvassing.
Even more than involving and connecting, mobilizing raises questions of control and messaging for many organisations, who often prefer to keep their supporters on a "short leash" - especially if they are unknown volunteers recruited through a website or email list. Neverthless, Web Campaigning reports that the opportunities offered by mobilizing were too great for many major US political campaigns to miss. In the 2004 US presidential campaign, both Bush and Kerry asked online supporters to get involved in mobilization efforts and to pledge to carry out activities from a list of possibilities, including writing letters and organising local events.
Foot and Schneider conclude that the trend towards using the Internet to mobilize supporters is all but inevitable, despite organisational questions over messaging and control:
Of all the practices we have described, we anticipate mobilizing will develop furthest in the coming election cycles ... campaigns will deepen the commitment of involved citizens and more effectively turn them into advocates.
You can read more about Web Campaigning and the data the book is based on at the book's website: http://mitpress.mit.edu/webcampaigning
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