Can blogs influence politics… the Mesh effect?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

So… I had the pleasure of listening to Bill Murray, in the guise of Warren Kinsella, facilitate a dialog at Mesh on Monday on the impact of blogs on politics that included Mclean’s erudite Paul Wells, the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, and Brad Davis, unfortunate bearer of the unwieldy title of National Director of Policy and Internet Strategy of the Michael Ignatieff Leadership Campaign (or the NDPISMILC… kinda Da Vinci Code, no? NDP is Milk?)

But I digress…

From the perspective of this attendee, the key take-aways were as follows:

Politicians are only now realizing that the traditional morning clippings are but a thin-edge of the wedge in terms of keeping tabs on the conversations and discourse happening about themselves, their campaigns, and their issues, in the eyes of concerned Canadians. As we’ve seen with the 2004 CBS News scandal that brought down the once-omnipotent Dan Rather, and as digital copyright expert Michael Geist posited in his keynote earlier that morning, the blogosphere has the potential to elevate issues and information that might otherwise have not been raised through the traditional mainstream media vs Government-of-the-day rhubarbs and brannigans, to the peril of those that chose to ignore it (Sam Bulte you know who you are).

That said, the general consensus was let’s not get carried away… as bloggers appear to have done following the most recent changing of the federal guard here in Canada (a la Bulte), and as web evangelists did during the heyday of the infamous “howlin” Howard Dean campaign in 2004. According to insiders here, Bulte wasn’t likely to win her seat anyway, leaving us to question whether the impact of the furor over her fundraiser was really that significant.

But as Paul Wells put forth, he was himself amazed at the effectiveness of the Dean team to mobilize supporters and garner donations… a process that, win or lose, politicians continue to evaluate to this day. Davis highlighted the fact that the Ignatieff campaign is now regularly seeking feedback from Liberal-leaning bloggers and is, in fact, going out to meet with them during campaign trips cross-country to tap into the “groupthink” of this engaged and active group.

Likewise, where Wells believed the real impact was being felt was in fundraising, given the change to contribution rules that today permit maximum contributions of $1000 per individual Canadian, and in education. Canadians, in an afternoon, can learn more about the issues they are passionate about, than ever before.

With respect to the media, Coyne opined that the Internet and social media may provide Canadians with new opportunities to tune out the mainstream media and engage politicians in a more direct and unfiltered way. Said Coyne: “Media often get in the way during elections”, hindering rather than helping the educational process.

Where the conversation failed to go, however, despite several questions from the gallery, was on addressing the longer-term impact of the Internet and social media on civic engagement. As young people turn their backs on traditional institutions and lose faith in the current “political” process, how might the Internet play a role in their desire to be heard, and to play an active role in deciding the future of our country?

Likewise, the impact of the internet on grassroots advocacy, by NGO’s and other issue-based organizations, or by private sector corporations, was conspicuous (in this attendee’s eyes) by its absence. The use of the Web to mobilize and engage stakeholders to target their local MP’s and decision-makers via online petitions, issues-based micro-sites and other tools continues to gather steam, and is continuing to re-shape how constituents engage their government representatives on key issues.

Perhaps what interested me the most was Coyne’s reference to the “echochamber effect” on political discussion in the blogosphere, specifically that political bloggers rarely engage those outside the confines of their political affiliation and that they tend to stick within their own political spheres either “preaching to the converted or screeching to the opposition”. There is no apparent effort to engage opponents in a real or meaningful dialog.

All in all, an interesting discourse that left me thinking that the opportunities presented by social media to elevate politics and public affairs, are only now taking shape.

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