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Table of Contents E-democracy as the future face of democracy: a case study of the 2011 Irish elections Introduction E-democracy as the future face... E-democracy and election campaigns Setting the scene... Fine Gael: a ‘digital strategy’... Making the most of new media... Lessons to be learned...
E-democracy as the future face of democracy: a case study of the 2011 Irish electionsIntroductionby Tom Curran Ravi Singh / June 3 2011The Irish elections on 25 February this year have made global news. It was the ending of an old era oftraditional politics and the beginning of a new era of younger, brighter politics that promised to bringhope and change to a country brought to its knees in desperation in the last few years. Things in Irelandhad to change; the people demanded it. Not only was the Irish general election of 2011to be the mostimportant election in Ireland’s history, but it was also the first general election where the Internet wouldplay a central role. The statistics of online use in Ireland were already an advantage. Internet penetrationin Ireland was already at 65%, with one out of two Irish people using Facebook. This article tells thesuccess story of the Fine Gael Party in the 2011 elections, and describes it in the broader context ofe-democracy trends. It concludes with lessons that can be learned from the Irish case and theadvantages of embracing state-of-theart e-democracy tools.
E-democracy as the future face of democracy: a case study of the 2011 Irish electionsE-democracy as the future faceof democracyby Tom Curran Ravi Singh / June 3 2011E-democracy is not a new concept; the term has been around for some years now. However, there aremany people who are still unaware of the power and potential of e-democracy. With rising Internetpenetration rates and the massive growth of social media, e-democracy is set to become commonpolitical currency in the next few years. The logic and purpose of e-democracy is to bring politics intothe present by taking into consideration the latest technology and communication trends. Its mainadvantage is to make politics and its decisionmaking processes accessible to a whole new demographicof people at the same time and with reduced costs. By using new technologies, the Internet can enablethe real-time, broader and more active participation of politicians and citizens alike.This is why the power of e-democracy cannot be underestimated any longer. The incredible speed andmanner in which information is dispersed across the Internet is unrivalled by any other traditional formof media. No other method of raising awareness, advertising or marketing has the unlimited reach of theInternet and the capacity to reach intended audiences through targeting techniques. Even in the case ofpolitical debating where traditionally everyone is required to be in the same place at the same time, theInternet has enabled anyone to access and create debates online and partake in online discussions.The question now is, how has the Internet’s reach and popularity been applied successfully to everydaypolitics? Has e-democracy already started to change the face of modern politics? The answer of thisarticle is yes, and the Irish elections together with the winning digital strategy of Fine Gael will be usedas a case in point.
E-democracy as the future face of democracy: a case study of the 2011 Irish electionsE-democracy and election campaignsby Tom Curran Ravi Singh / June 3 2011So far, politicians around the globe have made different use of Internet strategies and tactics. During hispresidential campaign in 2007–2008, Barack Obama set the standard with his world-famous onlinecampaign that got everybody’s attention. The campaign generated huge amounts of online activity andparticipation from both the electorate and the candidates. The results were unprecedented and caused ahuge surge in popularity for the would-be President of the United States. He cleverly used Internet toolsto get in touch with a wide range of voters across the country, particularly young people, who would notnormally have had an interest in traditional politics. The Obama campaign, which is now considered abreakthrough campaign for catapulting politics into new media platforms, showed the world that theInternet can play a huge role in politics and, if used properly, can make a significant difference onelection day. It is often said that President Obama would not have won the US presidential electionwithout the use of the Internet.
E-democracy as the future face of democracy: a case study of the 2011 Irish electionsSetting the scene: challengingelection times for Irelandby Tom Curran Ravi Singh / June 3 2011Before the elections in Ireland, the country had been in the throes of the biggest economic depression ofits history. Unemployment had risen significantly during the last three months of 2010 and peaked at14.7%, the highest rate since 1994. Having come down from its few years of fame as the second-richestcountry in the European Union, the recession was a tough change to adjust to, one that would smotherthe EU’s pride for years to come.Ireland’s tale is one of rags to riches, then repeated in reverse. During the 1990s Ireland wassynonymous with wealth, prosperity and all things luxurious. The Celtic Tiger prowled through thecountry for years, transforming everything it touched to gold. However, the wealth created during theseyears and the excessive greed experienced could not be sustained by the economy, and inevitably itcrashed. The boom of the 1990s turned to bust and history began repeating itself, and this time theplunge into bankruptcy, carefully archived in every type of table, diagram and chart, saw a drop ofastonishing magnitude.Irish banks had to be rescued by the government on numerous occasions, each rescue becoming biggerand more hurtful to the economy than the last. Finally, the government solemnly accepted a bailoutfrom the EU and IMF, as the public struggled to keep their heads above water.On 1 February 2011, a general election was called by President Mary McAleese at the request ofoutgoing Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who resigned on 22 January 2011. Cowen’s political party, FiannaFa´il, was on the brink of being thrown out of government for the first time since 1927. They had beenthe ruling party in Ireland for 61 of the last 79 years. The topics of the debate and campaign reflected thecurrent state of the country, with the biggest focus on the economy, health care and political reform.Immigration, job creation, mortgage payment difficulties and spending cuts were also prominent.
E-democracy as the future face of democracy: a case study of the 2011 Irish electionsFine Gael: a ‘digital strategy’towards electoral successby Tom Curran Ravi Singh / June 3 2011The difficult times Ireland was experiencing made it a real challenge for all Irish parties to win votes. ButFine Gael hit the ground running in the election campaign, using the Internet as an aggressive tactic tobattle some of the toughest challenges facing the Irish people for years. Known as their ‘digitaladvantage’, the Internet strategies of Fine Gael helped them to continuously top the polls during theentire election campaign and eventually win the elections.Voters’ confidence in the Fianna Fail significantly decreased from 42% in 2007 to 25% in 2009 andreached an all-time low of 14% in January 2011, as each blow to the economy was mirrored in thestatistics. Anger among the public was evident and the people’s faith in the government dropped furtherwith every poll. Meanwhile, Fine Gael, whose popularity was at 19% at the start of the election, saw ahuge surge in numbers during the campaign, with their online efforts playing a big part in this. Fine Gaelunderstood that a well-managed online campaign combined with traditional efforts could make asignificant difference when it came to getting their message across to the voters.The party also realised that if it wanted a successful digital campaign, it would need the right team onthe ground to achieve this. Thus, the ‘Digital Task Force’ was created, consisting of young, enthusiasticpeople. With a mere eight weeks until election day on 25 February, Fine Gael went into overdrive when itcame to Internet strategies. Due to local campaign laws, television advertising is not allowed in Irishgeneral elections, apart from limited party political broadcasts per campaigns, and so other methods ofcommunications needed to be explored. Internet campaigning was the best and most powerful option.The use of an online platform using the latest technology in cloud computing allowed Fine Gael’s digitalteam to organise and manage all the different technology tools and distribute information to canvassersand the media. The powerful software allowed them to successfully communicate with over 5,040supporters of the organisation in a single mail shot. With less than one week to mobilise thosesupporters, Fine Gael created an e-canvasser tool that was similar to that used in Barack Obama’s 2008campaign and already proven to be a massive success. This allowed Fine Gael to effectively organise,manage and target their supporters’ profiles.
E-democracy as the future face of democracy: a case study of the 2011 Irish electionsMaking the most of new mediaand social networksby Tom Curran Ravi Singh / June 3 2011The leader of the Fine Gael Party, Enda Kenny, wanted to engage directly with the public and listen totheir views on what had gone wrong in the economy and what recommendations the citizens had forfixing problems. Kenny asked them to submit their views and comments directly to the website on anew public forum that replaced the old website. The result was over 250,000 visitors and more than40,000 comments left on the site. The Irish public told Fine Gael that they were concerned about theEU-IMF bailout, job losses, youth immigration, health services, tax increases and the failings of the Irishpolitical system. Fine Gael used all this feedback to help shape their policy agenda, the ‘Five Point Plan’,and their campaign slogan, ‘Let’s Get Ireland Working’.The website continuously evolved with new content, videos and interactive tools. Each Fine Gael policyposition was added to the website, and users were able to comment on each policy and respond tofellow users on the site. Never before had an Irish political party conducted this type of online policydiscussion. For Fine Gael it was not just about the policy itself, but about establishing a dialogue. FineGael’s YouTube channel became the most popular political party channel in Ireland, reaching thesixth-highest ranking in all of Ireland and growing over 3,000% in four weeks. Fine Gael’s viral campaignefforts were also helped by the first Irish-language tweeted debate commentary and the historic livestreaming, through Ustream, of a public debate which brought over 30,000 visitors to the site in minutesduring the live broadcast. ‘Take Action Web Pages’, Facebook and Twitter accounts were created forover 104 candidates in mere weeks to provide a way for voters to learn about the Fine Gael candidatesand communicate with them online.Fine Gael also used the online advertising platforms of Google and Microsoft, which together controlover 95% of the Internet traffic, to help drive online engagement. This set another record: it was the firsttime video ads and rollover advertising were used for political campaigns in Ireland and the world.Widgets were created, using technical integration with Facebook and MSN Messenger, to allow users todonate the status of their accounts to the Fine Gael Party. By informing their Facebook friends,approximately 3,000 users participated in this initiative in less than 48 hours. Other creative digital toolswere used throughout the campaign to help gain momentum. Valentine’s Day e-cards, ‘twibbons’,‘Twolicies’, ‘Donate your Facebook status’, interactive website opportunities and even a video gamefeaturing Enda Kenny all helped to maintain interest and drive over 250,000 visitors to the website,which led to a 600% increase in visits.Election day arrived and Enda Kenny appeared online in his own rollover ad, addressing the people ofIreland and asking them for the last time to vote for Fine Gael to help lead the country to recovery. Whenthe results came in, it was a roaring success for Fine Gael. They won a record 76 seats to become thelargest party in the Da´ il since its formation 78 years ago. Meanwhile, Fianna Fa´il experienced thebiggest defeat by a sitting government since the formation of the Irish State in 1921. It was anoverwhelming landslide victory for Fine Gael, which would form a coalition with Labour, also successfulwith 37 seats. Enda Kenny had led his party to success with a digital advantage that had never beforebeen seen on such a scale in the small country.
E-democracy as the future face of democracy: a case study of the 2011 Irish electionsLessons to be learned: moree-democracy coming to Europe?by Tom Curran Ravi Singh / June 3 2011The impact of the digital efforts organised by a good team on the ground along with high-endtechnology providers has changed the way political communications is done in Ireland, just as Obama’scampaign in 2008 ushered in the rise of digital campaigns in the US. So what should the other EUMember States make of Fine Gael’s campaign and its electoral success? The authors of this articlebelieve there are lessons to be learned by all stakeholders involved in a democratic electoral process: • Establish a dialogue: Starting with the electorate, the Fine Gael campaign is useful in pointing out that the voices of the voters can be heard, and that this is not just party rhetoric or an empty campaign slogan. As shown above, Fine Gael used the massive feedback received through different online channels to shape the ‘Five Point Plan’ that would take the country out of a very difficult economic situation. • The rise of the online politician: Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny should serve as an example for other leaders to engage more with their audience. Of course, on the campaign trail it is impossible for a politician to be in two places at once. However, by using social networks and new media tools, candidates can have a simultaneous online presence in a multitude of places. • An online campaign plan: As far as parties are involved, a caveat is in order: a digital strategy will never replace a party programme. Both are needed and only a fruitful synergy of the two can accomplish the desired results. Nevertheless, a digital strategy has enormous potential when it comes to making this party programme known across the electorate, promoting it and getting feedback on it. Each party needs to decide how it will leverage social networks and who will manage the accounts. • Technology infrastructure: The latest advances in technology, especially cloud computing and the widespread use of integrated platforms for campaigns, have proven to be not only innovative but also efficient, saving costs and time. They allow campaigns to develop customised tools targeted at different categories of voters, as well as to reach out to non-voters.Can European states afford to ignore these points? Only if they want to ignore the trends: year by year,the figures show that Internet penetration is increasing within EU Member States, albeit at differentspeeds; these upward trends also apply to new media and social networks. History always has a funnyhabit of repeating itself, only in slightly different guises. It is already common knowledge thatRoosevelt’s now-famous fireside chats helped him rally the support of citizens for his New Dealmeasures. And more than one historian has pointed out that the turning point of the 1960 USpresidential elections were the first-ever televised presidential debates between John F. Kennedy andRichard Nixon. What both cases show is that embracing the most advanced communication tools (radioin the case of Roosevelt, television for Kennedy) helps politicians win support and votes.In a nutshell, it can safely be concluded that with elections coming up in key EU states such as Franceand Spain in 2012, and with the European elections of 2014, it is more than likely that the victory willbelong to those who understand and embrace e-democracy and the state-of-the-art tools it provides.