The so-called 'Unabomber' who terrorised the US with a radical bombing campaign protesting about the dehumanisation of modern technology created publishing history when, in September 1995, he persuaded the Washington Post to publish his 35,000 word manifesto, 'The Future of the Industrial Society'.
Few people bothered to read the whole of his rambling tirade about the perils of a technological society. The Post agreed to publish, ostensibly on the understanding that if it did so he agreed to desist from further bombings. Since its publication, others have seen fit to present the manifesto to a far wider audience by placing it on the Net (www.panix.com/ ~clays/Una/ for example), making the Unabomber the most widely published terrorist in world history.
The Unabomber Manifesto is a curious example of how the Net could have a massive impact by making political ideas and discussions instantly available worldwide. We are already familiar with the concept of open access to vast amounts of information of a political nature, but the notion of politically sensitive material becoming widely available challenges the established order worldwide.
In the UK, there are now more than 800 Web sites with political content, from political parties to pressure groups, local councils and government departments. In the US, where there is far more fringe political activity on the Web, there are more than 2,000 sites with political content.
As is so often the case when it comes to referencing material, it is an academic site that provides the best listing of political activity. A site constructed by final year politics undergraduate Julian White (www.keele. ac.uk/depts/po/table/brit/brit.htm) provides links to more than 750 locations as well as MPs' email addresses and background political data. Perhaps the most unexpected is a list of political assassinations in the UK this century. Five are listed at www.keele.ac.uk/ depts/po/table/brit/asa.htm/.
According to White, activity by political groups is increasing significantly. 'When I began the site I was getting two or three new links via email a week - now it's two or three a day,' he says.
But to what extent has email become a way of life for MPs in the UK? White remains sceptical: 'Many have email addresses but in my experience, few will get back to you themselves if they respond at all.' Exceptions he cites are the Liberal Democrats' leader Paddy Ashdown and Labour MP Clare Short. White thinks MPs want to show they are available via the Net but rarely have the resources to respond when they are emailed. He feels they are missing out on important discussion on political newsgroups, to which they should be responding if they want to catch floating voters.
New Labour, new Web site
The most visible activity by the three main political parties is on their ever-growing Web sites. The Labour Party site (www.poptel.org.uk/labour-party) has a wide selection of information about the party. You can read the latest manifesto and order a range of branded goodies such as Labour Party tea towels.
The site has grown out of a design developed by Online Publishing about a year ago. Jeraint Hazan, managing director of Online Publishing (www.olp.co.uk), says he is pleased with its progress. 'They haven't spent a lot on it but it is very effective as a publication,' he says. 'When the manifesto came out it was particularly successful because they had underestimated demand in print. Now they are supplying daily bulletins and we hope to offer sound and video clips in the future.'
A system which will allow MPs to contribute copy automatically is also under development although there is no way to email the party directly.
Jeraint feels that development of the site as an internal and external resource will depend on further funding. 'It will take time,' he says. 'Some of those higher up in the party have never seen it and they already use bulletin boards for internal communications, so they don't see a need to develop an intranet around it.'
Online Publishing has also designed a site for Public Services International, the international trade union federation for public sector workers. As a pan-European organisation, PSI needed a site that was available in four languages, something that has been achieved with relative ease in this media.
The Conservative Party launched its Web site (www.conservative-party.org.uk) in October 1995, electing to work with London-based design company Web Works. It gives a wide range of information relating to the party, its structure and how to join, and features the controversial 'New Labour, New Danger' ad campaign material. It is frames-based, consists of around 600 pages and receives a large but unspecified number of hits.
Again, you cannot email the party direct. 'Central Office did not want to receive abusive email so the only way people can email the site is via the link to Web Works,' says Chris Cocker, senior programmer. 'Most of the email sent to us is from people complaining that there are no direct links.' Web Works' marketing manager, Peter Colingwood, explains that the site must be seen to be separate from government activity. 'It is the site for the party so it was decided not to offer links to government departments,' he says.
So, what role will the site play in the forthcoming General Election? Colingwood says discussions have focused on activity in North America but with a degree of scepticism about the American Way: 'They have had a look at some of the US sites and there are some extraordinary things. On the Bob Dole site you can download a picture of his dog. We didn't think it would be appropriate to offer one of John Major's pets online but you can be sure that the election will concentrate people's minds and the Web site will be a real focus.'
Join the party
How helpful is the Web for individuals with political aspirations? Rosie Sanderson, a prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) for the Labour Party, works for End User Computing, the development company which created her own Web presence. Over three months her site has had around 3,000 visitors but she is sober about its impact as a selection tool to help her get selected. 'Any publicity is good publicity but in truth, access to the site is pretty limited,' she says, adding that the main benefit is receiving emails from voters.
White at Keele University predicts a surge in activity in the run-up to the election, following the lead of the US campaigners. He says manifestos and speeches will be available online within minutes of publication and online activity will be decentralised. But the biggest problem is allocating resources. 'They need to get more involved and put money into their sites,' says White. He also predicts that Web activity will drop to near previous levels after the election.
For the Internet to become an important force in UK politics, it needs to encourage the electorate to take politics seriously. The Rock The Vote charity intends to be the first organisation which uses the Net to encourage young people to register to vote. The campaign began in the US but it has set up a UK operation with the backing of companies such as The Body Shop, BT and Channel 4. It also has the endorsement of the major political parties, which accept it as a charitable status operation with no political bias.
Rock the Vote (www.rockthevote.org.uk) offers sound and video clips of famous music and comedy artists who endorse the scheme, and provides links to other political sites. The rationale behind the whole operation is the fact that in the 1992 election, 43 per cent of under-25s did not vote compared with 31 per cent in 1987. The 1992 figure is a staggering 2.5 million.
The central function of the site is online registration. Users give their personal details, with which the Rock the Vote organisers work out their constituencies of residence. A postcard is then sent to the user to sign and send on to the local electoral registration office.
The site was designed by Wicked Web, based in London's Covent Garden.
Creative director Tim Ashley says he is encouraged by the feedback. 'We are receiving up to 10 registrations a day, which is very good after one month of operation,' he says. 'Ultimately, it comes down to awareness of the site, which will depend on it getting a lot more coverage in the media.' Ashley says the site would normally cost around #25,000 but that Wicked Web will be paid 'if there is any money left'. The benefit of such an arrangement is that the team working on the project has had more creative freedom.
But the offerings of such sites are sorely restricted by the lack of digital access to information at the House of Commons. The only central source of constituency information is in card index form.
Ashley is not alone in finding the House somewhat behind in using IT to serve the public better. One of the causes may well be that the antiquated building dates back to the time when quill and ink were state of the art. Rick Nye, ex-technology journalist and director of think-tank the Social Market Foundation, says: 'They don't even have enough offices to house people in, so state-of-the-art technology is not always high up the list of priorities.'
Nye believes the Web is becoming more useful in disseminating information more effectively. 'During the Budget, I found the best way to get a copy of the statement was on the Treasury Web site because the Treasury had run out of paper copies when I requested one,' he says.
But does Nye envisage an increasing role for the Net in UK politics? 'In some ways it is different from the US,' he says. 'There, pressure groups use email to lobby Congress and the Net is an extension of the political system. It is also a fact that an individual congressman can vote for funds, whereas MPs in the UK do not act in that way.' As a policy-shaper, Nye is aware that the Net could be used to provide a better service - say, for social services - but as yet, there are no plans for such improvements in place.
Webbed the American way
Not surprisingly, the Web was a major focus of political activity in the US during the recent elections. Voters could interact with candidates, brush up on political platforms and receive news coverage at a Web site called The Democracy Network. Sponsored by the Centre for Governmental Studies, a non-profit research group in Los Angeles, the site focused on informing voters about local candidates and ballot measures, and offered a forum for political discussion. Candidates were given passwords which enabled them to access a site database and make changes to the content.
During the US election, the Internet gained momentum through considerable activity on political Web sites. The Washington Post declared it 'the coolest new campaign venue' but pundits were less gushing.
Ostensibly designed to help voters make the 'big decision', the official sites of the candidates and their parties were mostly filled with meaningless rhetoric, irritating propaganda and multimedia gimmicks. Although they contained some interesting data and offered smaller parties the prospect of a higher national profile, information-hungry voters ultimately had to turn to the more content-rich 'news' for independent information.
Nowhere were the promise and peril of partisan political Web sites more evident than at Clinton/Gore 96 (clinton96.org was snatched up by a parody-site creator). The site was well-designed, keen to make the president's case and almost devoid of objective information for voters looking to educate themselves. Benjamin Ginsberg, political science professor at John Hopkins University, says: 'I don't think it contributes much. It's simply another more sophisticated form of advertising that most people will recognise and tune out.'
Bob Dole's site was similar. A nice customisation feature allowed visitors to adjust the home page to highlight their own state and the three issues which they felt affected them most. But the rest of the site was pretty standard.
At Dole Agenda you could read the candidate's speeches and position papers. At Dole Interactive you could download campaign posters and play a Dole crossword puzzle (sample item: the name of his dog). There were audio and video clips and a section called The Bob Dole Story, which began with the humble line: 'Bob Dole has been called a towering figure.'
Neither the Clinton nor the Dole site had any real interactivity. In both, you could make online donations with credit cards (quelle surprise), sign up for mailing lists and volunteer for the campaigns, but there was no way for voters to communicate with the campaigners, chat with other supporters or ask specific questions.
One of the reasons why the sites are so non-interactive, says Evans Witt, executive editor of the PoliticsNow site, is that the campaigns don't know who their target audiences are on the Net. 'Are they trying to reach journalists to provide information which is otherwise available only in a press release, party activists or the average voter?' he asks. 'I don't think they have really figured that out yet.'
By contrast, the Web sites of smaller party presidential candidates knew exactly who their audiences were - voters who may never have heard of them or who don't know much about them. At www.harrybrowne96.org, Libertarian candidate Harry Browne told of his party's struggle toward the elusive goal of a televised debate. And at www.hagelin.org, Dr John Hagelin of The Natural Law Party laid out the essentials of his plan for reducing crime and urban stress through 'natural' approaches, including transcendental meditation.
Not surprisingly, many online visitors were more interested in independent sites run by leading US publishers and broadcasters, most notably PoliticsNow and AllPolitics. PoliticsNow is the product of a union between two previous political sites, ElectionLine and PoliticsUSA. Its site enjoys the collective resources of ABC News, the Washington Post, National Journal, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and Newsweek. It provided original daily coverage of the campaign plus content gleaned from all the print partners. There was an enormous amount of material, including a Money Talks section which offered a regular look at campaign finance, and a Check the Record section where you could find out how your congressional representative had voted. There were also state-by-state links to the local elections.
A Past Results section offered a historical perspective on past campaigns in each state. Prior to the election, PoliticsNow worked with the Commission on Presidential Debates to offer RealAudio debate coverage, online analysis and commentary and near-realtime transcripts. A Poll Track venue offered the latest polling data of the presidential, congressional and state races. There was also analysis of polling data and its impact on campaigns.
In direct competition was AllPolitics, a collaboration between Time magazine and CNN. Although its content was less extensive than that of PoliticsNow, it featured columns from both organisations, a sights and sounds gallery and email from the trail - a daily diary from reporters covering the campaign. Michael Riley, executive producer of AllPolitics, says television and the Web are complementary - television reaches a large audience and the Web provides 'depth, breadth, universality and inclusivity'.
Another good source of campaign and voter information is Vote Smart, a national non-profit organisation which has made public its comprehensive database of voting records, campaign finance data and issue positions. Online editions of newspapers also provided special election coverage. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, along with dozens of regional and local newspapers, blanketed the Web with election results as part of their normal election coverage.
There seems little doubt that the impact of the Net in the political sphere will grow rapidly. It will be used increasingly as a propaganda, communications and lobbying device by parties and organisations small and large. Its significance is that the barrier to entry is so low that low-budget organisations can gain access as easily as those on large budgets. The first steps have been taken toward some form of electronic democracy - whatever that might mean.
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