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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Internet is a Political Game Changer.

The Harper recent apology for the continuation of pooping puffin bullying of Dion on another campaign website is merely an attempt to cut the story short in the MSM. And it will likely do the trick.

The problem is in the Internet age is the story never dies. It may go dormant but it lives on through the search engines – for-friggin’-ever. It will resurrect in the strangest places and times and can get a new life in a different context and hound Dion and hopefully Harper too.

Political campaigns are very different these days. More people than ever are getting their political news from the Internet. A June Pew Institute Report on the 2008 American election shows 46% of Americans use the Internet to get political news AND share their thoughts. “Online video and social networking sites have taken off, according to the study done by Princeton Survey research Associates for Pew.

The ancient ploy of politicians refusing to talk to reporters to take the oxygen out of a story is not as effective as it once was. YouTube has become a preeminent source of video on candidate’s comments and carryings-on. The study found that 39% of internet users go online to read and watch “unfiltered” campaign material. In case you think it is just kids and propeller heads that are doing this online, 29% of all adults are accessing campaign information that is “unfiltered.”

The Internet is not a panacea for participatory democracy but it is a game changing campaign tool. There is no doubt that the Internet is notorious for being replete with misinformation. Just like the Harper election campaign. When it is good, it is very good…and when it is bad it can be devastating and dangerous. Just like the mainstream media.

So who can we trust to tell the truth? How do we get authoritative and authentic information about who we can trust to run our country and speak in our name? The traditional news media has started to catch on and realize that they are being played by political campaigns. The games get played out in ways that serves the symbiotic needs of the politicians and the media…but not necessarily the public interest. The photo-ops, staged and symbolically visual events with pithy and timely sound-bite policy announcements are all designed. The political purpose is to prepackage and frame the message, get the exposure and trigger an emotional response to garner support for a candidate or a policy position.

Sophisticated political advisors know the MSM attention span and the behaviorally modified public consciousness means the key red-meat stuff of political messaging must primarily be emotional, tied to personal experiences and can even be factual, but that is not a requirement. If there is time to be accurate and contextual then facts may make it into the story too. But who really cares about context and factual accuracy when the next political adrenaline jolt is about to be injected into the reporter pool and the pack moves on.

As an example, yesterday’s Edmonton Journal front page headline blasted out “Libs, NDP anti-family: Harper.” This is a perfect example of what I am talking about. Allegations of Dion’s “hidden agenda to carbon tax, raise GST and cancel child-care benefits” in the subhead add to the emotion and tie into the experience aspect. The reader is invited to jump immediately to the obvious conclusion, as framed by Harper, even though it is factually inaccurate and devoid of context.

Each of these emotional laden headline issue frames of Harper’s henchmen is factually incorrect and contextually misleading. Dealing with just one example, there is a carbon charge on polluters in Dion’s ecological policy – but it is not just a “tax.” But there are also income tax cuts and rebates for low income citizens to compensate for the additional costs. The concept of making polluters pay and reducing tax burdens on good things like worker’s income and savings and investors who improve productivity are also part of the context of this story.

The hidden agenda angle gets the headlines because it feeds the competitive gamesmanship of politics and the facts get buried. The balance is lacking. The questioning is lacking and one suspect the reporter failed to read the Dion policy document so as to put context on the Harper hype.

What is the solution for citizens in such situations? Same as is has always been. First is the hard part. Become an actively and aggressively engaged citizen on the issues that are of interest to you. Come to the election campaign with a healthy sense of skepticism about the motives and manufactured messaging of political operatives. Then let your family and friends know what you think. This second part has never been easier, thanks to the Internet.