Do the political classes yet understand the power of the web?

February 26th, 2011

Are the Arab Revolutions the first sign of its true potency?

Every major new medium challenges and often revolutionises how politics is done. From the invention of printed books through to newspapers, radio and television, each has challenged the elite of the day both to adapt their skills to the new technology but also to handle how the populations respond to the increasing availability and usage of each new medium.

The internet – still a very young and growing technology – has the capacity to be more powerful than any of these earlier media because while they are essentially passive media, where the public consumes what the writers or producers create, the internet is far more active. The kind of micro-publishing done on Twitter, Youtube or blogs can be done by billions as well as read by them, and this scope means it operates more comprehensively and instantaneously than old-school media; something which even very authoritarian governments therefore find difficult to control, especially when allied to mobile phones.

All this makes it far harder for elites to spin a message to their country that flies in the face of the people’s experience. In democratic countries, we get the kind of popular spoofing of campaign posters, video messages etc that we saw in the UK general election that can render them ineffective or counterproductive; in partially or non-democratic countries, posts to YouTube or Twitter can undermine a regime’s assertions or evidence its actions in a way previously impossible. At a minimum, it forces the oppression into the open; at most, it leads to its collapse.

Used skilfully, it is possible for a politician or party to use the web for their own ends – its ability to cut through the middleman to deliver messages direct or raise funds is greater than was the case in the pre-web days. Even so, it’s been a better launch pad than a tool for the establishment.

What does this mean for the legacy media? That newspapers still sell despite easy web access, never mind TV and radio, shows there’s still an appetite for paper copy but they will forever more be behind the curve (even their own exclusives can usually be read about online before the papers arrive). For the papers, getting ‘news’ out is likely to become less and less a priority as they shift to magazine-style articles of analysis, opinion, gossip, investigation and quality description.

Media companies have always followed their readers, listeners and viewers as much as lead them. They have even more reason to do so now, with so many other options (and so much more information to use, should they choose to do so). That makes governments’ jobs harder too. Perhaps they shouldn’t be looking for a new Alistair Campbell – it may not even be possible for an all-powerful spin doctor to operate these days: it’s too easy for independent bloggers to counter the ‘line’.

Revolutions have always taken place so it would be wrong to ascribe too much influence to a means of communication, even a two-way one. Other factors are at least as powerful. That said, the images and news passing from country to country clearly has an effect and all governments, democratic and otherwise, have operated on a basis of working one way or another with a relatively small number of media organisations and trying to produce stories suited to them – something that will be increasingly difficult to do as control over information and its dissemination slips from those central positions to the population at large.

On the related theme of old certainties being overturned, Ireland went to the polls yesterday and has probably given a crushing defeat to the previously dominant Fianna Fail party. Counting by STV will go on all day (and weekend) but the likely outcome should be fairly clear by early afternoon.

David Herdson

(Double Carpet writes:)

We’ll be having an Ireland live thread from about 2pm. In the meantime, you can follow the RTE live blog here, the results map is here, and the live coverage should be available here.