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Election blogging has its drawbacks

Angela Hall
The Leader-Post
January 11, 2006

A Web site that was once a Saskatchewan MP's online diary is now a portal to pornography.

In an example of the pitfalls of online communication, the abandoned blog where Conservative Andrew Scheer once typed his thoughts on issues of the day was picked up by someone else.

The Web address is the same, but his former blog contains a number of links to sexually explicit sites.

Scheer said the intent was to take his old blog off and, in its place, put up a re-election blog. But the old address was inadvertently released during the process.

"One of the great things about the Internet is that it is uncontrolled and it is kind of unregulated and it's very free and open," said Scheer. "But I guess with that freedom and openness there are unfortunately some people who choose to use that in a very negative way."

Scheer describes his experience as a lesson "in making sure you know exactly what you're doing before you hit the delete button."

He has traded blogging for e-mail updates for the rest of this campaign, but said he still values the idea of getting a message out through the Internet. "I try to use it to get some discussion going and engage people in my riding."

Patricia Elliott, an assistant professor at the University of Regina School of Journalism, said blogs can have political impact but bloggers do write at their own peril.

"It's an unpredictable universe, so if politicians want to play in that universe, great, because it is very democratic and conversational, but that universe can come back to bite them."

Bloggers can help correct mistakes made in mainstream media, but not everyone thinks about what can happen when blog news spreads beyond a circle of supporters, noted Elliott.

The executive vice-president of the Liberal Party resigned in December after he posted photos of Toronto NDP candidate Olivia Chow and a Chow Chow dog on his blog.

Scheer's blog hasn't been the only online headache for Saskatchewan candidates. A Web site using the name of Battlefords-Lloydminster independent candidate Jim Pankiw satirizes him. An earlier site set up by the same webmaster spoofs Saskatoon-Humboldt Conservative MP Brad Trost.

Even so, Canadian political parties are doing a better job of waging online campaigns compared with the 2004 election, according to a study released Tuesday by the government relations firm Hillwatch.

Hillwatch principal Alex Langshur said there is more integration this time between what happens online and off-line. Issues that candidates are talking about during the campaign are moving quickly to Web sites, often with interactive components.

But the report also notes that Canadian political Web sites lag those in the U.S. and United Kingdom, particularly in the way those sites are used to deliver highly targeted and regionally specific content and raise funds.

When it comes to avoiding online gaffes, strategists will ensure domain names that could be used against a party or candidate, such as "bushsucks", are purchased. That happens at the national level in Canada, too, but it's not as easy in every riding, said Langshur.

"At the local riding levels, you've basically just got the MP and their friends and supporters. so it's just a different level of sophistication related to a different level of money."

Politicians can take steps to protect themselves by keeping their old blog address alive, said Rob Cottingham, president of online consulting firm Social Signals.

"The first thing is to recognize you have this kind of digital trail of bread crumbs that you leave behind you and you either want to sweep up carefully after yourself or just make sure that it can't be hijacked by other people."

Cottingham said many candidates are using free services to blog, but it's probably best if they can buy their name as a domain name.

Even with the potential problems, more federal candidates than ever are operating blogs, he said. "It is a way to communicate with people in an authentic, personal, often spontaneous kind of voice."

(With files from Veronica Rhodes)

Hillwatch Inc., 45 O’Connor St. Suite 1150, Ottawa ON K1P 1A4 tel: (613) 238-8700 fax: (866) 310-4955