The past year has seen an explosion in online political discussion, with blogs and video webcasts the tools of choice for political parties, candidates and commentators to canvass and debate issues ahead of the general election. The online medium has found particular favour among younger candidates, with Ciaran Cuffe, Oisin Quinn and AJ Cahill of particular note (see panels), but even the seasoned campaigner Jackie Healy-Rae has ventured into cyberspace, albeit with less interactivity than his more tech-savvy counterparts.
A blog is essentially an online journal that can be freely created by the everyday internet user who wants to host their own webpage complete with text, pictures, audio and video files. Most blogs allow feedback to be submitted by friends and the public. As Cian O'Flaherty of Irishelection.com points out, an online campaign is “relatively inexpensive and can be highly effective for election candidates”.
But despite the exponential increase in its use, political blogging is likely to have a negligible effect in the forthcoming election. The main reason for this is lack of of access (mainly broadband) to the internet, affordability and, in some cases, education about the internet.
The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources' roll-out of broadband has been disastrous. A report published in April by a the joint oireachtas committee for this department said that despite the “critical importance that broadband was likely to have in ensuring balanced regional development, in providing communications resources for socially disadvantaged groups in our society and in limiting the effect of geographic isolation”, projects undertaken to date have “not succeeded in delivering what the Irish public has demanded – ubiquitous, low-cost broadband”. Ireland remains near the bottom of the table for broadband penetration in the EU. (Interestingly, broadband rollout has not been raised as a serious election issue by any political party.)
For political blogging, this means the exclusion of the majority of the electorate from online campaigns and political discussion. Many people access the internet via a dial-up modem, but downloading the podcasts, YouTube videos and large PDF policy documents being used by candidates and parties in online campaigns is far too slow and costly via dial-up, and a large proportion of the electorate is therefore unlikely to become fully engaged.
Secondly, affordability is an issue. A small proportion of the 12 per cent of Irish people at risk of poverty or the 5.2 per cent of people living in poverty can afford a computer to access the internet, let alone broadband access.
However, while these problems are stifling the impact of political blogging at present, the online campaign should not be discounted as an effective campaigning tool for future elections. Dr Colum McCaffery, a lecturer in Political Communication at the School of Politics and International relations in UCD, believes that while election websites currently “will have little effect this time around, their influence is growing”. McCaffery speaks of the media effects that bloggers have when they talk in larger social circles and believes that bloggers “may [become] influential in this way”. As well, traditional media outlets are taking a greater interest in blogs and online debates.
Antoin O'Lachtain of Digital Rights Ireland and founder of votetube.org believes that voter demographic has a large part to play in this. Political blogging is gaining momentum, particularly within the younger demographic. Currently 40 per cent of the Irish population is between the ages of 15 and 35. Antoin says that “the 20-30 year old demographic is a difficult group to canvass in the conventional way”, and the political parties may be able to reach those voters through the internet. “Online media will be the new battleground, maybe not in this election, but [definitely] the next four or five years” says Antoin
Cian O'Flaherty, founder of the award-winning political blog irishelection.com, says that while Ireland is generally “immature in the broadband/internet usage stakes” and that blogs “are going to influence [only] a small proportion of the country, [election 2007] will probably become a foundation in terms of the internet”.
An impressive political blogger is Independent candidate for Meath East, AJ Cahill, who created the ‘Enough is Enough' website when he decided to run in March. According to Cahill, “the most powerful aspect of blogs is when people, not candidates, tell their story of neglect and abandonment”. Cahill filmed short video clips to highlight the issues raised by constituents on his campaign trail and posted these to his blog.
Oisin Quinn and Ciaran Cuffe, Dun Laoghaire candidates for Labour and the Green Party respectively, have similarly outlined local issues to good effect using webcasts. The videos are brief, to the point and naturally presented. In separate videos, Ciaran documents his plans for local urban renewal and films a precarious bicycle commute through Dublin's rush hour traffic, while Oisin's slightly more formal videos touch upon the Dun Laoighre Baths, the proposed Sutton to Sandycove promenade and public transport.
Worst Video blog
Councilor Pat Fitzgerald from Arklow should be elected solely on the sheer hilarity of the home video announcing his candidature for Wicklow. The video opens to the theme from Chariots of Fire, panning an aerial view of Pat's native Arklow. We then visit Pat, comfortably reclined in his armchair, where he reams through his many accomplishments, including the juvenile GAA medals he won several decades ago. Viewers patient enough to sit through Pat's seven-minute monologue are rewarded by another classic theme, Superman.
Available at Irishelection.com
The most entertaining aspect of online political commentary is the satirical blog. A raft of bloggers are posting funny, deprecating imitations of party leaders and election candidates. PolitialThicko gained much kudos following his hilarious video response to Mary Harney's rather uninspiring webcast about why she wants to stay on as Minister for Health. His most recent video impersonates Enda Kenny and his ‘angry voice' from the Fine Gael Ard Fheis. Bertie is the focus of a Phoenix-style collection of superimposed images on Snackbox Diaries that ridiculed the Fianna Fáil billboards featuring the Taoiseach jovially engaging with the younger voter. On the site, Bertie's head is pasted onto a series of pop culture icons – David Hasslehoff, Darth Vader, ET and even Mother Theresa.