Behind the Lines: Why Web gets brushed aside in our politics

We just emerged from a Labor Party primary process in which the Web played virtually no part.

internet finally 88 (photo credit: )
internet finally 88
(photo credit: )
Even a casual observer of the early stages of the US presidential race can't but help notice that, to a large extent, the campaign is being waged on the Internet. The various candidates have all hired Web experts who fill central positions on their teams; their personal Web sites have become the main vehicles for putting the message across; and some of the candidates even announced that they were running on-line, rather than in a public or television appearance. The candidates have all joined social networking sites, like myspace and facebook, and posted clips on youtube, and the competition now is to see who can get more "friends" or "hits" on their personal pages. In some cases, this has descended into bizarre on-line warfare, with partisans working around the clock to insert damaging details into the enemy's biography on Wikipedia and trying to defend their champion's record on what has become the world's primary source of information. While all the major candidates had Web sites in the 2004 election, the Internet still remained largely a sideshow, save for the campaign of Howard Dean, who for a few short weeks was the frontrunner in the Democratic race. Dean ran what was then seen as a revolutionary Web-based campaign, mobilizing tens of thousands of young and mainly radical supporters over the Internet. But a disastrous speech on television, which was immediately lampooned on the late-night talk shows, and a lack of more traditional, establishment-based support caused his campaign to fizzle out quickly and he wound up largely a footnote in that election. Dean is not in the running this year, but his Web tactics are being used by all the candidates, especially by those vying for the Democratic nomination. An Internet campaign has a number of bonuses. For a start, managing a slick Web site is much cheaper than running a TV commercial - a definite plus when funding is at a premium. It also allows the team to stream their commercials for advance viewing and garner quick public responses on the Web, before deciding whether to air them on TV. The site, which is totally under the campaign's control, allows the campaign managers to decide on the timing and to put across the message without filters, and spares the candidate from the efforts of often hostile interviewers to ask awkward questions. The Internet also has an ever-growing nationwide reach, engaging young voters who don't tend to regularly watch the TV news shows (whose viewer ratings have been declining in recent years) or to read newspapers. To an increasing degree, the reports in the "old media" on campaign developments are based not on things that the candidates have said or done at their public events, but on what is posted on their Web sites. And it's not only the official campaign Web sites that are moving the story forward. Many of the breaking news stories and scoops first appear on political blogs, which can call upon the endless resource of millions of ever-vigilant surfers. Most developments get reported by the regular media only after being played out on the Web, and the candidates' spin doctors regularly use the blogs to plant rumors and new ideas; that's the quickest way to get instant reactions - and it's also much more deniable. The blogs' influence has also risen with their tendency to dissect reports and opinion pieces that have appeared in the old media, in some cases disproving them. In the 2004 campaign, it was bloggers who blew out of the water a CBS report on George Bush avoiding service in National Guard, and ended a number of illustrious careers in the process, by proving that one of the documents presented by the network could not have been printed at the purported time. The fact that many of the bloggers are themselves partisan and opinionated hasn't limited their effectiveness. On the contrary, it allows them to write and publish things the "respectable" press would never dare carry. As a sign of their influence, popular bloggers are now routinely invited as commentators on the major networks, and there is a growing crossover between the old and new media, with bloggers being hired to write for print newspapers and senior journalists being encouraged to launch their own blogs. The Web has also become an integral part of politics in Britain, where there is currently no date for a general election. Former prime minister Tony Blair chose to post his congratulations to Nicolas Sarkozy on his French presidential election victory in a youtube clip, while the head of the opposition, the young and ambitious Conservative David Cameron, has a year-old blog and regularly shows scenes from his life and work on the Web camera. ALL THIS long preamble, which for many readers probably doesn't contain any new information, is intended to contrast what's happening in Israel. For a country that likes to see itself as a world leader in Internet technology and is blessed with a vigorous media, the political scene is still to a very large degree off-line. We have just emerged from a six-month Labor Party primary process in which the Web played virtually no part. The defeated incumbent, Amir Peretz, didn't even have a functioning Web site (probably as a result of the defection from his camp of the new-media tycoons who backed his 2005 campaign) and while the other candidates had active sites, they served merely as notice boards for announcements and events that had already been released to the press. Ami Ayalon tried to develop an on-line dialog with an "Asking Ami" feature but failed to create a significant exchange. In all cases, the Web sites at best repeated information that had already appeared in the mainstream media. No stories were generated on the Web. Last year's general elections were very much the same. Most parties had Web sites, but they were very seldom of journalistic interest. I can only remember two stories that began on the Web, both relating to the Likud's site. One was about how Ariel Sharon had been deleted from the list of past Likud leaders and the other concerned how, just days before the elections, the party published its manifesto on the Web, including a surprisingly "leftist" clause on territorial compromise, quickly amended after the first reports broke. It seems that the manifesto was posted exclusively on the Web and not handed out to reporters, perhaps in the hope that it would remain unnoticed there. When Kadima was founded, it was supposed to be a new-style party, without a top-heavy and corrupt organization. New members were supposed to sign up on the Web site, and most of the party business was to be conducted on-line. Meanwhile, the old Web site has lapsed into disuse, the home page promises a new one, but the URL just leads you to an "under construction" notice. Not that the other major parties have anything better. Labor currently has no official Web site (though there is an active unofficial one). The Likud's site is sparse and out of date (the unofficial Likudnik site, though, is lively and sometimes contains a newsworthy item). The best Web sites belong to the smaller parties and fringe groups. Meretz, National Union, Israel Beiteinu and the Likud's Jewish Leadership faction all have well-built and frequently updated sites. Surprisingly, the best and most informative one belongs to Shas, complete with video streaming of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's popular sermons. But even these sites, while yielding the occasional nugget for energetic reporters, usually reflect news that has already been reported. Neither are there any influential political blogs. Only a handful of politicians have their own blogs, chief among them Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, but his postings, which appear on average twice a month, are generally turgid opinion pieces, containing nothing he hasn't already said in speeches and interviews. Hadash MK Dov Hanin has a blog, but he rarely posts anything, and a couple of weeks ago, Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich launched her blog, which still contains only the maiden post. There is no widely read blog on Israeli politics; the tens of thousands of blogs in Hebrew tend to be mainly about personal topics and, to a great degree, the writer's sex life. There are a number of interesting English blogs on Israeli politics, but none has a serious following within the country. The only significant political presence on the local Internet is in the reporting on the Ynet news site and to a lesser extent on NRG, both filling the role that in the US and UK is mainly played by 24-hour news channels. One interesting phenomena is "talkbacks" - the hundreds of responses written by surfers that often accumulate in a matter of minutes on controversial reports and opinion pieces - though it's impossible as yet to gauge their influence. Some PR experts obviously think they're important, as at least some politicians and parties have at times employed "talkbackists" to write seemingly genuine comments in their favor. But it would seem that their appeal is still limited mainly to a small group of Web maniacs. If the Labor primary proved anything, it is that our politics, despite the developed media scene and the growing population, is still a deeply tribal affair. Elections are still decided much more on family and personal affiliations and along social fault-lines than on a serious discussion of policies and the candidates' merits. The technical infrastructure, along with millions of potential users, is there, but Israeli politics still isn't ready for the free and open world of the Web.