Has anyone else noticed that over the past year or so we have repeatedly seen and heard from commentators how Britain is so far behind America when it comes to using the Internet for politics? How Britain is failing to grasp the technology correctly and is maybe five years behind the seppos? It's starting to irritate me I can tell you, because each and everyone of them seems to come from the same silly starting premise that the way the seppos do it must be the direction of travel for Britain because they are successful and we are not (relatively speaking at least). The problem is that they're comparing apples and oranges.
Just think about this for a minute. Let's start with OFCOM and Electoral Law. The UK does not allow political parties to buy advertising space on television and radio whenever it wants too. The broadcasters and media are heavily constrained themselves and there is growing concern about spending arms races. The growing consensus - rightly or wrongly - appears to be that uncontrolled spending is bad for party politics. How therefore can Britain ever expect to be on the same page as the US with its use of the Internet for campaigning? Producing those online attack ad videos don't come for free, and nor does the work involved to make them fly up the YouTube rankings (and that point ignores the ethical questions of that work).
The commentators who make these grandiose statements about Britian's need to catch on seem to fail to understand that the Internet is only a small part of a much greater whole in a campaign in the USA as well. The deregulated media marketplace in the US enables candidates to push their web presence to a mass audience. It is all well and good to have great videos, actually marketing them to people so they gets watched is a different matter. The American political advertising culture is the complete antithesis of the British one. To try to make a comparitative analysis of the success of each is just silly.
But it is not just the cultural and political market place that makes the constant comparison by commentators and bloggers flawed, but the geographical and population difference too. An MP has to appeal to about 60,000 constituents. With turnouts down the reality is that he or she only has to hit about 17,000 people. That puts them on a par with an elected official on a US state legislature rather than a federal (national) instutition. Targetting such a small demographic means that even if there are successes most of them won't be known about. With limited spending capacity and entitrely local issues, it is not worth the time or effort to produce big production style videos and fancy web content.
There's also little point in them spending money even on regional television because the penetration rate compared to price and what they need isn't cost efficient. That means again that, if they have videos they want to campaign with, they have to rely on the very few people that matter looking for them. The best they can do is to take out local advertising pushing their web site. Of course, in real power terms, an MP is much more like a Congressman in the House of Representatives. However, look at the comparison again. A Congressman has constitiuent numbers in the millions, and operates at a state level in the already mentioned liberalised deregulated media market.
In a campaign there will be multiple television channels available to push their message and drive traffic to their online content. Spending the time and money on driving that content up online on a large scale probably wouldn't be cost-effective either. The point is though that the Congressman is very different to the MP, and it stands to reason that the campaign strategy with the Internet will be very different. In fact, the only comparable situation that Britain has to America where a single figure is elected by literally millions is the London Mayor. But, as already noted, that campaign will be constrained by spending limits and broadcasting regulations. Even if the web content for the candidates was superb, without the wider ability to push that content it is only web nerds that will probably watch it.
The fundamental point here is that the Net does not exist in isolation in a campaign, it is simply a complimentary part of a greater whole. As much I hope Ron Paul surprises people in the Republican nomination, his success to date as been almost entirely Internet based. It would be foolish to write him off completely, but his chances of actually winning are small to non-existent. What Ron Paul will actually do is show that the Internet alone does not win you elections, and, in a sense will also show that the obsession of commentators with the power of medium is as misplaced as the .com bubble was in the financial marketplace. That's not to say the medium won't become more important if things like IPtv become more commonplace.
Another area of false comparison comes with the party system in Britain. In the US, whilst there are political parties, they are far mroe disparately connected and they do not have a formal leader. Policy comes down to candidate convictions far more than a party line. As such what you are more liekly to end up with in the UK is lots of sameyness. Finally though, when it comes to comparing Britain and America's use of the internet and politics there is the structural political difference at the very top. Britian is not, technically at least, a Presidential system. Whilst Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg et al may be national leaders they are still only MPs that need about 17,000 votes to maintain their job.
They do of course have a massive impact on national views and do influence people beyond their constituency (as too do Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet ministers in media perfomrance). But again we come back to the culture in which they operate. They cannot just buy advertisement at will, and they cannot spend whatever they like. This makes them very different to a Presidential nominee or candidate. Our quasi-presidential system is such that they could make personal videos, or attack videos, but as WebCameron and LabourVision have found out, getting people to watch the things is not easy. More importantly, getting people to watch them and actually stay tuned requires creative thinking and that means spending lots of money. Yet again we come back to money it seems.
For as long as there are spending limits on party political campaigning. And as long as the ability to hype up an Internet presence is constrained by rules and regulations about when you can air or publish content, then we will always be "behind America". Actually though, we're not behind America really. We're on a different motorway. The Merkins are driving up the M1 whilst we're driving up the M6. Until we realise that we're on different roads surrounded by different landscapes we will continue to make the false comparison between the two.