understanding the Internet: Italian politicians go online

More and more Italian politicians have been jumping on the Internet bandwagon. The Education Minister Mariarosa Gelmini has started a YouTube channel, where she announces with a video that she hopes this channel will allow her to listen to people’s opinion, in order to “implement change together”. The video has reached 260,000 views since it was posted a week ago, and 8,000 comments. A few days ago, Renato Brunetta, the Minister for Public Administration and Innovation, has opened a Facebook page, gathering around 14,000 supporters and around 1,200 wall posts/comments. He also posts a video, in which he states that this is his first effort to reach people online, so that they can contact him with their views, and he hopes in this way he will also be able to keep them posted about his initiatives and activities. Continue reading “understanding the Internet: Italian politicians go online”

the Internet and politics: analyzing the 2008 US election

A group of McCain and Obama campaigners, academics, activists, bloggers and journalists have gathered for two days at Harvard at a conference organized by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society examining the role that the Internet has played in the the 2008 US election. Parts of the conversation were under Chatam house rule, nevertheless here are some highlights of the lively discussions that have taken place.  Some preliminary outputs of the meeting can be found here in essay format and other Berkman colleagues have blogged about the event here and at the Internet and Democracy blog.

The first day of the discussion focused very much on the role played by the Internet in the campaign. Did Obama win thanks to the Internet? Did the Internet play a role in engaging people who would have not otherwise been engaged? The first question was prominent, and the message that was stressed many times over and over, especially by Obama campaigners, was that the Internet served as a wonderful tool to coordinate and link online and offline action, with the technology playing a central but complementary role to the efforts of offline grassroots organizing. I came home with the feeling that top-down strategy played the key role in getting people involved, but that success depended very much also on the bottom-up grassroots efforts and energy that Obama and his campaign people managed to mobilize and draw upon. Continue reading “the Internet and politics: analyzing the 2008 US election”

The Internet: politics as usual?

With the primaries in full swing and the upcoming elections, one cannot but ponder what role new technologies such as the Internet are playing in facilitating citizens’ engagement in the political process. Is the Internet actually making a difference?

The Internet has certainly lowered the barriers of participation – if one wants to get involved, there are numerous arguably low cost ways to do so. Social networking sites such as Facebook allow users to join groups or become supporters of one’s favorite politician. Political satire DIY videos abound on YouTube, from the downright entertaining to the more engaged ones. Finally, there is a series of innovative websites, for example Scoop08, VoteGopher and Generation Engage, which are entirely made up of user generated content allowing (especially young) people to voice their opinions and engage in political discussion.

But does online political participation matter if it does not eventually translate into some tangible offline outcome such as for example turnout at the ballots or door to door canvassing? To put it in other words, is the online participatory culture promoted by the Internet meaningful in itself – if it does not translate into a (offline) participatory democracy? Similarly, does offline political participation which was originated online matter if it is only short term and episodic (for example taking part in a protest organized on Facebook)? Is one off participation as valuable as long term commitment to a cause? After all, some of the most successful online ventures such as MoveOn.org and MeetUp.com can ascribe a big part of their accomplishments to the fact that they are rooted in local communities and offline social networks.

It is being argued that the Internet is really making a difference for young people’s political engagement. There is some evidence that the current generation of 18-24 year olds is more civically engaged than previous generations of young people. While it can be argued that Web 2.0 tools, from social networking sites to YouTube are the domain of the young, can we safely assume that it is the Internet which is playing a major role in engaging young people in the political process? How do we isolate the impact of the Internet from other exogenous factors such as the war in Iraq, the years of the Bush administration, or the 9/11 attacks as political scientist Robert Putnam has recently claimed?

While the Dean campaign was greeted as the first Internet election, online fundraising was the main feature of the novelty. Much has changed since then, thanks to the new opportunities for involvement provided by Web 2.0 tools. Unfortunately, studying these new trends is often fraught with methodological difficulties: how can we quantify the aggregate effect of the thousands of videos uploaded on YouTube; or of the scattered conversations and strategic planning which takes place online on politicians websites, users’ blogs and Facebooks groups? Perhaps the most important question to be asked is whether and how the Internet is contributing to the empowerment of individuals – as political efficacy and political trust are necessary conditions for becoming involved in the political process.

YouTube enters Italian politics

Italian Minister Antonio Di Pietro from the left-coalition party ‘Italia dei Valori’ is the first Italian politician to make use of YouTube as a tool for political communication. He has posted a video where he reports on this week’s Council of Ministers’ session, and announces this vlog will be followed by weekly posts “in order to achieve complete transparency on the decisions taken in each of the Council’s sessions”. Judging from the number of views (33,000 approx. in less than two days) and from the comments left, this initiative is proving to be a successful move to engage people in the political process (or at least to engage those people who are looking to be engaged — and looking online). Di Pietro is one of the few Italian politicians who has not abandoned his blog once the elections were over (for a review of the Italian political blogosphere see “Apri il Blog e Scappa” [“Open a Blog and then Run Away”], in L’Espresso 12/12/2006).

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