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The Internet and Political Campaigns

How has the Internet helped or harmed political campaigns?

June 16, 2003

How has the Internet helped or harmed political campaigns?

In 1989, Ronald Reagan proclaimed that “the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom that the world has ever known.”

Maybe — in a decade or so — his prophecy will come true and Nigerians, Saudis, and Kazakhs might routinely download the U.S. Constitution and vote over cell phones in mass parliaments.

But for now, information technology hasn’t lived up to its worldwide political promise.

Many authoritarian countries, such as Burma, have simply and successfully banned the Internet from the public. Others, such as Cuba or China, have built national firewalls that block the Net’s democratizing effect.

But the most interesting indictment of the early thesis of information technology’s coming political beneficence comes from the few places where it has indeed had an impact.

There, it has tended simply to speed up the political process rather than improve it. And when it comes to selecting effective global leaders — faster often equals worse.

Consider the three political leaders aided the most while rising to power by the Internet and information technology: Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the Philippines, Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota.

Macapagal Arroyo came to power in January 2001 after Filipinos converged en masse on a famous Manila intersection on the Edsa Boulevard to protest against then-President Estrada.

Most of the protesters came because of little notes on their cell-phone screens: “Go to the EDSA shrine to protest. Pls pass” or “EDSA. EDSA: everybody converge on EDSA!”

After Estrada was thrown from power, the Manila Standard filed the headline “At least 100 million text messages did Estrada in.”

In Indonesia, the effect of information technology on Megawati’s rise to power was less clear — but certainly substantial.

As with the Philippines, the government had embraced information technology — and students had become familiar with the Internet during the ’90s Asian economic miracle.

Then, during the protests that brought down long-time ruler General Suharto, the Internet provided an essential communication method.

“The internet contributed significant role in stepping Suharto down in 1998,” says one of the student leaders at the time, Zul Zulkieflimansyah.

“Many sensitive and important issues, up to date infos, etc were spread easily by using the Internet — Email, Web, mailing list etc…”

The Jakarta Post wrote of the protesters at the time, “Instead of fighting with bamboo spears, swords, guns or tanks — they used banners, placards, the mass media and the Internet.”

Megawati didn’t immediately take power after Suharto fell, but the 1998 protests brought her into the political spotlight and set in motion the events that would deliver the presidency to her.

In the United States, a number of candidates have benefited greatly from the Web. Former Presidential candidate John McCain was able to raise millions of dollars online in 2000.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg used online advertising to great effect in 2001 — and a number of candidates successfully used the Internet to coordinate their get-out-the-vote efforts last year.

But the only one to claim that the Internet played a fundamental role in his victory was the former wrestler, Jesse Ventura, who used the Internet to rally supporters for his 1998 candidacy for governor of Minnesota.

“The Internet for us served as the nervous system for the campaign,” said Jesse Ventura’s campaign manager. “It was the mobilization.” Arroyo, Megawati and Ventura all demonstrate the considerable political power of the Internet.

Unfortunately, none of the three has managed to fulfill his or her most basic campaign promises. Importantly, they also completely failed to push their agendas through fractious legislatures.

Mr. Ventura’s legislative agenda quickly collapsed — and he left office with a much longer list of memorable quips than legislative accomplishments.

Ms. Megawati has had a terrible time pushing through economic reforms — and her popularity levels have sunken considerably. An October poll showed that only one in ten Indonesians thinks she has the intelligence to lead a country.

Macapagal Arroyo has also failed to get her economic reform package through the Filipino Congress — and has been dogged by charges of incompetence.

A December 2002 Philippine Daily Inquirer story about her sagging approval ratings began, “President Macapagal Arroyo is ending 2002 — her second year in office — choking on dust.”

Subsequently, she announced in December 2002 that she will not seek reelection in 2004.

Granted, all three leaders might have come to power even if information technology hadn’t provided their campaigns with extra boosts.

Macapagal Arroyo and Megawati come from near-royal blood and Mr. Ventura outpolled two uninspiring opponents.

So perhaps they would have risen and fallen on their own — but probably not. And the qualities that have led to their failures are the same ones promoted by IT-driven politics.

All three mainly suffer from having excess style and short substance. All three showed an inability to work with and manage the lower-tier legislators necessary for success. None was able to push through substantial reforms or really govern at all.

As the old adage goes: For every political problem, there’s a solution that’s simple, easy and wrong. And that’s what quick IT-based political movements currently excel at finding.

If you had a political pants-on-fire moment 15 years ago, you’d maybe call a few friends — whereas today you can email 500 and exhort them to come to EDSA for a rally in two hours.

Moreover the folks most likely to have sudden outbursts of rage against the system — young people in universities with time on their hands and electronic resources at their disposal — are the ones most likely to have access to the Net.

The right to vent is crucial to democracy, but venting alone doesn’t always do so much good.

Candidates who appeal to folks with their pants on fire are often unproven and provocative ones — with virtues easily described on a cell phone screen.

They aren’t the sort of candidates likely to have the most adept legislative-negotiating and consensus-building skills. Nor do they have truly deep support that will help them out in times of trouble or allow them to select competent aides and allies.

Over time, the Internet will almost certainly mature as a political tool by giving political power to people who’ve never had it before, opening up corrupt political systems — and increasing democratic deliberations.

Even now, with the exception of the untraceable communication it offers to the likes of Al Qaeda, the Internet has mostly been a force for good in the places it has made a difference short of selecting leaders.

The Burmese expatriate opposition operates almost entirely online and has begun slowly forcing reform in that country’s autocracy.

In Serbia, the chief democratic radio station simply shifted online through servers based in the Netherlands when then-President Slobodan Milosevic shut down domestic transmissions during his final months in power in autumn 2000.

In Ghana, the Internet allowed expatriates to raise money in 2000 for the opposition candidate John Kufuor — who defeated the party of longtime dictator Jerry Rawlings. It also allowed exit-polling data to get to opposition leaders outside the country who were monitoring for fraud.

There also are of course times when political rot has become so thorough that the only way to improve things is to strike a match to the whole system.

But — for the most part — countries like that aren’t ones with access to modern technology.

Information-technology-inspired politics move faster than traditional ones. But as the people of Minnesota, Indonesia and the Philippines have found, they’re not necessarily better.

Looking at the leaders that have catapulted to stardom, they’re quite often just the opposite.