Welcome to the digital ward boss

24 Dec 2008

Barack Obama’s internet-enabled campaign demonstrates that the web is transforming the way the world’s second-oldest profession does its business.

In the past 10 years, the internet has transformed the way business operates, the way wars are fought, how governments provide services to citizens, and now, how governments are chosen.

The explosive growth of Ryanair would not have been possible without the self-service potential of the web; the second Gulf War was the first network-centric war, where battle commanders had a total view of the battlefield due to the web’s capability to integrate different networks.

In Ireland, Government has transformed how business and citizens file and pay their taxes, and how parents register the birth of their children.

Now, the web is transforming the way the world’s second-oldest profession does its business, for the election of Barack Obama in the US marks  the first-ever truly internet-enabled campaign.

As Wired.com pointed out recently: “Volunteers used Obama’s website to organise a 1,000 phone-banking events in the last week of the race – and 150,000 other campaign-related events over the course of the campaign. Supporters created more than 35,000 groups clumped by affinities such as geographical proximity and also shared pop-cultural interests.

“By the end of the campaign, myBarackObama.com chalked up some 1.5 million accounts. And Obama raised a record-breaking US$600m in contributions from more than three million people, many of whom donated through the web.”

Even allowing for the hyperbole of technology boosters, these are impressive statistics, and there is no doubt the Obama team’s mastery of the web was critical to his campaign and his eventual victory.

As I write, I have no doubt that the Soldiers of Destiny, Fine Gael and Labour are looking at Obama’s campaign and trying to distil what will work in an Irish context. Make no mistake, the next Irish general election may not be won on the web, but it will be hard fought on the net and, in a tightly fought contest, mastery of the web could well be the deciding factor.

So what will work in Ireland, and just as importantly, what will not work? For a start, don’t get overly excited about the youth vote. Having a Facebook or Bebo page is not enough to suddenly motivate young people to get out and campaign and vote for you.

It was the candidate who inspired young people to vote, the technology was just a means to reach them. If you have a candidate who combines movie-star good looks with the ability to speak like Cicero, and who is campaigning in a nation gripped by despair against a cynical and corrupt government, then technology will definitely help you to connect with young people.

If, on the other hand, you look like most politicians (and me), ie balding and overweight, can barely manage to read a script and are campaigning about bread-and-butter issues, look for your voters elsewhere.

That is not to say social-networking sites are not important – they are – but the youth vote is notoriously difficult to motivate, and technology on its own will not do it. However, if you are a liberal candidate standing in the European Elections, social-networking sites could be brilliant at mobilising the gay community or the green community.

Communities bound by shared interests rather than geography – which, in Ireland, where we live in one area, work in another and frequently socialise in a third location – represent a growing number of people.

Obama used the web to fundraise, organise and communicate with his supporters. In many ways, what he was doing was creating a virtual party. In a time-constrained world, people are no longer willing to spend hours going to branch meetings, listening to boring speeches or gripe sessions from the old guard.

The web allows you to reach out to people, give them the kind of canvassing information they need and put them in touch with like-minded citizens. What it does not do is replace the on-the-ground campaign. You still need to canvass and get out the vote, but what the web does is make that effort more efficient and better controlled than ever before.

The web is now allowing us to do something really interesting for the first time. In the old days, say 10 years ago, we could transmit information over static websites. We could give people facts but we could not really engage with their emotions, which is a problem for politics, because politics is a heart, not a head, game.

If you do a brain scan of a person thinking about politics, the part of the brain that deals with logic does not get fired up; it’s the part of the brain that deals with emotion that gets animated. Winning votes comes down, not to facts, but emotional arguments that persuade people to vote for your candidate. That’s why Bertie’s likeability factor was so central to his success.

So what’s this got to do with the web? Well, with rich content (music, images, video etc), you can transmit material that appeals to the emotions. Just as the right music can play a role in seducing the partner of your dreams, so music, and strong positive images, can help you to make an emotional connection with voters, and it’s the emotional connection that leads to votes.

If the high tech of US elections seems removed from Ireland, one fact should show that it is not. During the pensions dispute, one Fianna Fáil backbencher got 80 emails from people over the age of 70; the era of the digital ward boss has truly arrived.

By Seamus Mulconry

Seamus Mulconry is director of public affairs with Edelman, and a former policy advisor to the Progressive Democrats