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Why the Internet Will Change Politics

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal
August 1999

The web is becoming the workhorse of political organization.

It is now conventional wisdom the Internet is forcing the re-design of the modern business organization.  Business is using the Internet as an enabling technology to speed time-to-market, provide better information, and sell loyalty, community, and collaboration.

Replace the word business with politics and the needs and competitive pressures are the same. The Internet is already changing government operations, political organizations and public interest advocacy and we haven’t seen anything yet!

The Net allows rapid, wide, and deep information collection.  

The Internet is becoming the place where people go first to find information. Recent research indicates this is overwhelmingly the case with the media, and political staff - most of whom go on-line weekly, if not daily, to find information.

How many association executives now go automatically to government department web sites to track policy announcements, download policy papers or find official’s phone numbers? A few years ago, we never heard of the Internet, now we are annoyed when government press releases are not posted immediately?

The Net permits any group to publish their views directly and cheaply. 

Traditional media still matters. But now groups can go direct, broadcasting their positions to millions of potential viewers. No longer at the mercy of ‘talking heads’ and the ‘nine second clip’, they create their own soapbox in cyber space. 

Many of the activist campaign organizations (e.g. Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Zoocheck) have had a better sense of the advocacy potential of the Web but mainstream organizations are catching up. When Onex attempted its takeover of Air Canada, it widely publicized a web site to create a single point to communicate its messages to the press and government officials. On that same issue, the Canadian Autoworkers Union encouraged visitors to its web site to submit e-mail messages to their Members of Parliament, which became faxes directed to the individual Parliamentarians.

The Net is a tremendously effective and accessible distribution medium.

The Web is becoming the workhorse of political organization. Need to get news to members, tell about an upcoming meeting, and distribute campaign materials? E-mail is an inexpensive and nearly instantaneous communications vehicle. 

Want to see leading edge Web political practices?   Check out US Presidential pre-primary campaigns where as Newsweek recently explained: “E-campaigning has been upgraded from novelty to necessity in the blink of an eye.”  Campaign staffers do up-to-the-minute research on opponents. Candidates have on-line ‘chats’ with supporters. McCain and Bradley have raised millions in on-line donations. The Forbes Campaign claims to have 84,000 ‘e-precinct captains’.  There is a ‘just for kids’ section on Vice President Gore’s site.

Many of these practices will be shamelessly copied by Canadian politicians and sprung on us at the next available opportunity.  According to Grant Kippen of the Hillbrooke Group, 37% of all Canadian households will be connected to the Internet by the time the next federal election rolls around in 2001. That’s almost 9 million voters or an average of 29,000+ voters per riding. The number of voters with access to cyberspace is too large a group to ignore.

The Net enables communities of interest to assemble and advocate.

Every political interest, mainstream or fringe, can find a home on the Internet.  It is a vehicle to recruit or retain members.  It is an incredible tool for grass roots mobilization.

The first real demonstration of the mobilizing power of the Internet was the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) negotiated at the OECD, where as the Financial Times stated: “the opponents’ decisive weapon was the Internet.” If we weren’t paying attention, the message was delivered again in Seattle. An unlikely assortment of labour and environmental groups used to Internet and created a coalition that protested, demonstrated and derailed the talks.  This level of rapid international mobilization was simply impossible before the Internet.  And the Internet can be just as effective nationally and locally. 

Bottom-line: This is the early days of the on-line revolution. As new innovative communications and marketing practices are created to sell commercial products and services on-line, these techniques will crossover to the political and public interest area and change the rules of the game. 

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