Political information on the web

Some things we need more of on the web, some things we need a bit less.

The appearance of a list of members of the British National Party on the Internet has generated a great deal of fear amongst those named. Some fear losing their jobs, and some fear violence or intimidation. The last thing I want to do on this blog is start a debate on the BNP - and comments in that vein will not published. However, the issues around data protection and privacy in this context are put into stark focus; the political affiliation against those individuals immediately puts this information into the 'sensitive' category. No matter what people may feel about the BNP, it is a legal political party, and its members enjoy the legal protections around their privacy just as everyone else does. Knowing my luck with mistaken identity, I'm hoping there isn't another David Evans who is a BNP member, as I could do without that really. I hear people saying that we should just publish everything and let people deal with it, and hopefully this incident will demonstrate why that view is, how shall I put it, impoverished.

I was considering all this when I was walking to our event for the BCS MP Website Awards on Wednesday (which went very well by the way). The BNP website is well known as one of the most popular - at least in terms of visitors. Last year, according to The Telegraph, it received many times more visitors than the leading political parties. Several of them have since updated their websites, but I don't believe I would shock anyone if I said that they collectively aren't doing the job they could do. The BNP do not have an MP, so are not in this competition, but MPs from small parties tend to do well. Last year the website of George Galloway from Respect received an honourable mention, and Adam Price from Plaid Cymru won the top 'best website' award. When you look at individual MP's websites - and I have looked at a very large number - they are collectively doing an appallingly bad job. The winners of our competition, and indeed all the finalists, are doing very well, but they are by no means representative. Many MPs still do not have a web presence, and many more have the equivalent of a simple A4 flyer with a JPG of their signature at the bottom, and I'm not sure that really counts as a website. To quote a student interviewed in our (really rather good) video:

"Everyone has a website; even my Mum has a website. I don't understand why an MP who when they are looking for young voters don't have something that's so obvious and so easy."

Well quite. The trouble is that building a good website and spending time on it is something of an act of faith for an MP. The characteristics of MPs and the time they spend working means they may not be participating in the world of the web as much as everyone else. Tony Blair was famous for eschewing email in favour of the pen and paper and President-elect Obama may be the first occupant of the Oval Office to have an email address. Even if an MP does build a website it will take a while for them to develop a readership, so a lot of work is required for an uncertain return.

The web also requires a very different style of engagement. If you are used to communicating through speeches, press releases and media interviews then you develop a certain style that may not work well on the web. Politicians are used to having to reduce (ad absurdium) their arguments on complex issues to five second sound bites. They are used to having their remarks taken out of context or twisted in a world built around readership at any price. Conversely, they are also used to having nobody paying attention to what they say on the floor of the chamber, but theyworkforyou.com is helping to change that.

Blogging, by contrast, is conversational, personal, and can sustain a more complex debate. On a regional radio station or speaking to a local hack it may be suicidal to support the closure of a local hospital (for example), but on a blog it is possible to argue for things that superficially or intuitively may not make sense to local people - but that may make good sense when the full implications and subtleties of the situation are made clear. In my experience MPs live amongst very complex and confusing balances of interests, and many yearn to have a richer conversation with their voters about how they are navigating these waters. They'd like to justify the judgements they make but also to inform people and in turn receive informed views back. Most of them - not all, but most, and from across the political spectrum - became MPs to work hard for their constituents, and most do. In light of that, the web could be the answer to their dreams; it's not without risks, but it has the potential to raise the debate and to allow them to extend the conversations they have on the street, in care homes and schools, over a longer period and with a much wider audience.

The other aspect to this, and another important lesson from the recent US elections, is the way that technology can enable volunteer engagement and mobilisation. My personal view is that the decline in volunteer activism at the local level is a slow death for politics. There are many reasons for this, but when feet on the ground are in short supply, campaign managers fall back on getting their vote out. Rather than encouraging debate and trying to change minds, they focus on getting known supporters to actually turn out on the day - and the rest of the time on 'voter identification' to see where support actually is. If nobody engages in debate locally, then politics will be reduced to a media war that in the end we all lose.

So this means that not only can political parties engage with voters through good use of the web, they can turn supporters into activists, and coordinate their activity. IT-enablement could positively transform (and rejuvenate) political activity just as it has so many other walks of life. So in conclusion, less publishing of personal information, and more publishing of personal views, is the order of the day!

About the author

Thoughts on membership, the profession, and the occasional pseudo-random topic from the BCS Policy and Community Director.

See all posts by David Evans
March 2018

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